Though it has come a long way from Bruce Geller’s 1960s TV series (“Good luck, Jim. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.”), the Mission: Impossible franchise occupies a nifty place in American action movies. Unlike the Avengers, James Bond, Bourne, the Transporter, or the Expendables, who charge headfirst into action, these highly-trained heroes are still somewhat reluctant. In a similar vein, Jackie Chan and Bruce Willis’s John McClane won the hearts of action fans with a little bit of reluctance as well as consequences for their actions (i.e. they get beat up and it hurts). When Ethan Hunt and his team get themselves into one of their impossible missions, they seem to know that what they’re about to do is crazy, and that they really shouldn’t, but they go ahead because no one else can do it and because it must be done.
And, though Tom Cruise has been the top-billed star on all five of the movies so far, including the new Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, these movies are also about trust and teamwork. Ethan (Cruise) is generally in charge and does most of the heavy lifting, but he rarely acts without the help of his crew members. It’s this unique combination of traits that makes the series emotionally appealing, and more human. This secret formula is the reason audience members grip their armrests and hold their breath during tense, daring, often death-defying set pieces.
As the movie begins — after a striking pre-credit “unrelated incident” — Ethan Hunt is still more or less on “Ghost Protocol” (see Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol for an explanation), off the grid and looking for clues as to a secret, evil syndicate, led by a slimy character called Lane (Sean Harris). Lane is described as a surgeon, systematically taking out the world’s institutions via carefully-chosen plane crashes or bombings, paving the way for a new, darker world. Ethan glimpses Lane, as he traps and gasses our hero and shoots an attractive record store girl (Hermione Corfield) in the head. Ethan wakes up in what looks to be an inescapable death trap, but, out of nowhere, the lovely, lethal Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who appears to be a double agent, helps him escape.
Meanwhile, back at home CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) vehemently attempts to shut down Ethan’s IMF division, citing the incalculable amounts of destruction they cause. William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), returning for his second Mission: Impossible film, tries to intervene, but fails. Brandt and Benji (Simon Pegg) — also back for a third round — become office-bound employees of the CIA, and a worldwide manhunt for Ethan is launched.
Ethan thinks he’s tracked Lane to Vienna, where the villain is expected to attend a performance of the opera Turandot. Ethan enlists Benji to help in the operation, uncovers a complex assassination attempt, and runs into Ilsa again. This brings them to Casablanca, and to the movie’s showstopper. In order to break into an unbreakable facility to steal an important ledger, Ethan must infiltrate an underwater chamber to switch out a computer chip in the security system.
The catch is that the chamber has a strong current that must be fought against, plus no metal is allowed, hence no oxygen tanks. Ethan must hold his breath for the entire time. Happily, the script has included a gauge on his wetsuit that lets us know just how much oxygen he has left in his lungs. The scene is absolutely gripping, and viewers may find themselves holding their own breaths for an equivalent amount of time.
Brandt and the veteran of all five films, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), join the fun just in time for a high-speed motorcycle chase. Everything leads to a showdown in London, which also involves the Prime Minister (Tom Hollander) and a head of MI6 (Simon McBurney). Truthfully, though the story — like all Mission: Impossible films — is complex, this one feels more coherent than usual, with an actual flow to the events, rather than little threads of exposition connecting giant set-pieces.
Remarkably, this series has passed through five directors on five films. They range from outsiders like Brian De Palma and John Woo to insiders like J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird, and though each director was allowed to indulge in his own signature style, the series still feels cohesive (only Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III, with its clumsy hand-held action and clunky pacing, is a disappointment).
The new director is Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for his crafty screenplay for The Usual Suspects and also directed Cruise’s appealingly languid, moody Jack Reacher. Additionally, he co-wrote the screenplays for Valkyrie and the underappreciated Edge of Tomorrow (annoyingly also referred to as Live Die Repeat), making this the fourth time he has worked with Cruise. It’s the best and smartest long-term collaboration the actor has ever had, and Cruise seems invigorated. He’s currently 53 and looks 33, pulling off realistic-looking stunts and commanding the screen as if that unfortunate “couch” incident and the subsequent weirdness never happened.
McQuarrie’s direction is likewise vigorous. Though the movie is long (131 minutes — four minutes shorter than Ghost Protocol), it feels sturdy and evenly paced, with strong group chemistry and vivid international settings (especially London). Essentially, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is an expert piece of summer vacation escapism, perfectly tuned into the human nerve center, if not exactly the human condition. It delivers thrills and chuckles, and the impression that somehow, we are secretly part of Ethan’s team. It’s all so satisfying that it wouldn’t even matter if, after leaving the theater, the entire thing self-destructed in five seconds.