The Mission: Impossible franchise is one that has never had too much regard for a connecting fabric between instalments, and it is an aspect that I have always found quite endearing about the franchise. Each instalment feels very different, each one with a different director bringing their distinct style to each instalment (for better and for worse). Brian De Palma kicked things off, back in 1997, with his Hitchcock heavy, set-piece driven spectacle, followed in 2000 by the slo-mo stylings of John Woo. The last two instalments courtesy of JJ Abrams and Brad Bird saw the franchise hit a bit more of a stride with more of a focus on team-play rather than making it entirely the Tom Cruise show. This time around, the action comes courtesy of Christopher McQuarrie who, with a combination of old school stylings and ingeniously designed set-pieces, may well have delivered the best addition to this unflappable franchise.
Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is on the trail of a secret organisation known only as The Syndicate, a rogue nation of agents committed to bringing down governments across the globe. With the IMF once again in a state of crisis following an enquiry by the CIA, Hunt is left with only his wits and a handful of allies to bring down The Syndicate before the world is thrown into anarchy.
McQuarrie’s last film was the stylish and slick throw-back Jack Reacher, a film which felt like a 40’s detective thriller dragged through the 70’s and thrown in to the 21st Century. That, also a Cruise-starrer, had a nice level of grit on its shoulder, as well as an unashamedly corny tone which saw Cruise spout out some of the most wonderfully ridiculous one-liners of his career (‘Drink your blood from a boot’ being a personal favourite) whilst also engaging in some fine action sequences which put emphasis on practical stunts. McQuarrie brings that energy with him to Rogue Nation, delivering stunts which are a joy to behold. Much as been made of Cruise clinging to an A-400, and while that is most certainly stunning to behold, the film has plenty more tricks up its sleeve, relying sometimes on the simple fact that it is thrilling to see a group of motorcycles plummeting down a flight of stairs in hot pursuit of our hero. McQuarrie and Cruise simply want to entertain, and they do so in an efficient, well structured and sophisticated manner.
Plot-wise, Rogue Nation treads familiar franchise ground, what with Hunt on the run from his own Government in order to pursue an international threat. It really is all filler to provide some momentum in-between each set piece, something which the film does very well through a light and positive attitude. The relationships between the characters help as well, with Cruise matching particularly well with new cast member Rebecca Ferguson as mysterious spy Ilsa Faust. Ferguson is a strong and capable co-star who gives as good as she gets, providing the film with its most memorable character and leaving one hell of an impression along the way. Cruise is on his usual dependable form, pushing the envelope for stunts and doing well in the comedic elements of a role he is now so accustomed to. Elsewhere, the team made up of Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames do well to portray a believable camaraderie, while Alec Baldwin is a welcome addition as the director of the CIA.
Where this film improves upon other missions is in its villain. Sean Harris is on snivelling form as the leader of The Syndicate, Soloman Lane, and while he works in the shadows for a great deal of the run-time, the parallels between his character and Hunt make for an interesting dynamic. Hunt sees Lane as a possible outcome for himself, someone pushed too far by his Government, but Hunt believes that being able to beat this man will not only secure his own confidence as an agent, but also his own moral sanity. It allows for Cruise to play Hunt a little more on edge than he has before; this is the first time that this series has let on that Hunt is nothing short of a maniac, a genius, but a maniac none the less. McQuarrie doesn’t have this element front and centre, it simply quietly plays in the background while Hunt engages in his derring-do’s with a manic glint in his eye.
After seeing Rogue Nation for a second time, I think I can confidently say that this stands as my favourite in the franchise, a franchise which I have a great deal of time for. While I have great affection for De Palma and Abrams’ instalments and appreciate the cartoonish sensibilities of Brad Bird (like most fans, I care very little for M:I2), none of the previous films feel quite as complete or as consistent as McQuarrie’s effort here. While the final act in London lacks the invention of the previous two acts (largely due to the fact that McQuarrie wrote it whilst shooting) it still delivers a satisfying conclusion to the adventure, and by no means ruins the ride. The strengths of the first and second act lie in McQuarrie’s knack for allowing scenes to play out for as long as he believes they need, knowing when to keep the action silent and when to blast the theme, resisting flashy editing, relying in rhythm and well stylised shots to convey action in a coherent and tense fashion (the Opera sequence is a franchise highlight).
While I think the franchise should continue to change who calls the shots, it would be wise to keep McQuarrie on as a writer, as his balance of thrills and suspense and comedic elements give this franchise its firmest footing yet, almost combining numerous elements that worked in previous instalments and shaking them up in an A-400 to make sure that mix is as effective as it can be. A high point for the franchise, and an example of how Cruise continues to push the boundaries of action cinema in a franchise that continues to surprise, even when you think you have it all figured out.