Warning: This review discusses the film’s ending.
Late in Christopher McQuarrie’s old fashioned counter espionage thriller, Jeremy Renner, the man introduced to the series to replace a fading Tom Cruise, only to be kept in his box by that sequel’s success and the reminder that its star will risk life and limb for our cheap entertainment, suggests introducing MI6 to M:I5’s plot. That’s bold, you think, assuming they’ll be a further sequel in this 20 year old franchise, but Rogue Nation‘s such a confident addition, emboldened by the success of Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol, that a sixth mission seems all but inevitable.
When you discover producer and star Cruise is keen to get on with it, acutely aware he’s riding a second franchise wind following the near death experience of the 2006 entry, then that’s hardly surprising. At 53 the Cruiser can’t have too many more practical death-baiting stunts left in him, yet it’s his on screen athleticism and insistence on practical set pieces, the kind audiences can feel in their stomach, that’s become the series’ trademark. Bond and Bourne have their niches but a Mission: Impossible movie thrives on conspicuously endangering its leading man.
Said man may not have much charisma but he’s prepared to hang off a plane during takeoff, participate in a perilous high speed bike chase and hold his breath in a sub-aquatic computer node for long enough that you forget to take a breath yourself, and that undoubtedly gives the movie an edge. When Cruise dies, he, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton will have a lot to talk about.
Each Mission has had a different director, giving successive sequels their own flavour and style. McQuarrie’s instalment owes much to Brain De Palma’s 1996 original, with Ethan Hunt on the run, the C.I.A – in form of Alec Baldwin, in pursuit, and a mission that pivots on the recovery of a stolen set of computer files. If that sounds a little too familiar, after all isn’t Cruise and co. disavowed or forced to operate covertly in every movie, then the good news is that McQuarrie’s tough no nonsense direction and focus (no struggling to hold together plot threads in the De Palma mode, here) polishes the formula nicely. He’s no stylist, like some of his predecessors (notably BDP), but he handles the action with aplomb, maintains a natural pace and keeps the story’s twists and turns the right side of cerebral. Rogue Nation‘s inflected with just the right amount of spy movie seriousness, a tone that even Simon Pegg’s occasionally irritating comic sidekick can’t sabotage.
More coherent and better plotted than most of its predecessors, Rogue Nation can boast sublime set pieces and fine, well-cast villainy in the form of Sean Harris’s Syndicate leader. If the ending feels somewhat weak, that’s because we’ve come to expect grand mayhem in the final reel, only for McQuarrie to opt instead for a Carol Reed-esque chase through London’s oddly smogged streets (we’ve had a clean air act for 50 years y’know) and stand off between two characters. That’s in keeping with his movie’s manifesto, however: a thriller informed by classic influences and a regard for audience engagement that many comparable CG saturated blockbusters lack.
Sure, Cruise’s obsession with his opposite number in the syndicate doesn’t quite cut through – he’s a better stunt man that projector of psychological nuance, and his bromance with Pegg isn’t nearly as endearing or amusing as he or McQuarrie think it is, but the movie works brilliantly despite these potential handicaps. Only in Alec Baldwin’s assertion that Ethan Hunt is the “living manifestation of destiny” do we detect the Cruiser’s ego running slipshod over the material – the same ego that’s relegated nearly man Renner to a strictly speaking role and pushed the non-threatening Pegg front and centre. If the resurgent Cruise, confidence restored, sticks to the high wire act in M:I6 and continues to remember that impossible missions are a team sport, everything should be fine.
This was one of the duller movie experiences of the year. Nothing remotely new, or different. Set piece in a concert hall? Motorcycle chase? Rooftop escape? Underwater jeopardy? Shootouts? English bad guy? It’s a tired old hand from a scuffed old deck. Not one good speech, not one great line. Cruise needs the snap, crackle and pop of Brad Bird, not the dry granola of McQuarrie.
Action movies are better not spending too much time under gray skies, or resolving with night-time scenes. That’s for noir. Action movies should be vivid and exciting. I’m as big a Cruise fan as anyone (save perhaps himself), but Rogue Nation is neither, and a waste of his skills and investment.