Sunday, August 9, 2015


The big news at the box office this weekend is going to be how Fox's newly-opened Fantastic Four (or FANT4STIC, as the posters would have you spell it) is getting its butt kicked by Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation - a film in its second weekend. This is the latest in a string of publicity pitfalls for the superhero picture dating back to reports of production troubles and tepid audience response to the initial marketing materials.

But one of the more head-scratching - and red flag-raising - moments in this debacle was before the review embargo lifted and star Miles Teller remarked that, though the cast hadn't seen the film yet, they weren't expecting it to garner overly-positive reviews from critics because "rarely are films of this size critically well received."

Which is not only laughable in the face of MARVEL Studios' legendarily well-reviewed run, but particularly because this comment was made the very same weekend that the fifth entry in the Mission: Impossible series became a critical darling.

Yes, the fifth film in the "watch Tom Cruise throw himself off of stuff" franchise is legitimately great. How did that happen?

The Mission: Impossible films are an interesting anomaly in modern franchise film-making. In an industry that's become obsessed with long-running arcs and building film universes, the M:I films have stuck with the formula of "Take Tom Cruise, give him a new director to film him hanging off of stuff, and make sure it looks impossible." This is how the series has operated since 1996. There's no Dark Knight Trilogy-style narrative structure here, and no MARVEL Cinematic Universe sequel teasing easter eggs. In fact, the biggest cue that the series seems to have taken from more "modern" blockbusters seems to have come from the Fast and Furious series.

As with the fifth entry in the car-racing/heist-pulling franchise, Rogue Nation finally starts to settle into a comfortable team dynamic by bringing back members from previous films to fill exactly the right roles. Cruise's Ethan Hunt is joined by long-time comrade Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), the only other character to appear in all five films - though he only cameo-ed in the previous entry. Returning from M:I-III and Ghost Protocol is Simon Pegg's Benji Dunn, and (also from M:I-GP...this series' naming convention has gotten odd) is Jeremy Renner's William Brandt.

The core team had been mostly defined in the previous film, but here comes into full focus with Benji on cyber duties, Luther handling mechanical, and Brandt running logistics. The team gets a stand-out sequence at the beginning of the film (the one with the plane from all the posters and trailers) to show their chemistry and roles, only for the film's twisting narrative to scatter them to the four winds as Hunt is forced to go rogue (for the fourth time in this series) to take down the shadowy Syndicate, a terror network described by Benji as "an anti-IMF." And since the audience is already invested in watching these characters work together, we want them to re-connect just as much as the film's story needs them to.

It's during this "getting the band back together" tour that the film introduces the fifth - and arguably most compelling - member in operative Ilsa Faust, a femme fatale who's abilities are as impressive as her loyalties are mysterious. She's actually shown as being consistently one step ahead of Ethan, which is why the menacing Solomon Lane, leader of the Syndicate, being consistently a step ahead of her makes for easily the franchise's most effective villain. Ilsa easily makes for one of the year's best female blockbuster heroes, every bit as strong and well-defined as Mad Max: Fury Road's Furiosa, if not as immediately iconic.

It's almost as though each previous entry in this franchise has managed to nail one specific aspect that - if mixed correctly - would make the ideal Mission: Impossible cocktail, and Rogue Nation takes them all aboard. The first film's "who do I trust?" spy-jinks, the second film's focus on a female lead who can keep up with Hunt, the third film's personal stakes and menacing antagonist, and the fourth film's globe-trotting action photography all get combined just as effectively as the individual members of the Impossible Mission Force team.

Director Christopher McQuarrie (who also penned the screenplay) turns out to be a capable action director who, while he cuts a bit too closely and quickly in some early brawls, absolutely kills with a three-tiered heist/car chase/motorcycle pursuit sequence in Casablanca. McQuarrie understands action as a tool to keep the audience guessing and surprised by the next beat, rather than exhausted by another explosion, and is always using the film's set pieces to inform character. But what might be the best move he makes is how the film's finale is handled. Where Ghost Protocol peaked with the Burj Hotel sequence (which is still the best action/stunt highlight of the series), it seriously petered out in the finale. Rogue Nation, however, creates a more intimate, taught, and thrilling infiltration and shell game chase to close out the film after finally bringing Hunt and his nemesis face-to-face after an entire film of dancing around each other. And the way the film deals with Lane makes for a beat that's every bit as fist-pumpingly satisfying as the smashing defeat of Loki in The Avengers.

While the IMF doesn't invoke "family" the way Dominic Toretto's crew does, this film makes it apparent that this is exactly what they've become. Even Alec Baldwin as the antagonistic CIA Director Hunley ends up indispensable to the proceedings, and the film ends with a beat that it knows exactly what a winning combination it had and fully intends to use it in future installments. But the film still tells a completely closed story by the time the credits roll, not asking any future commitment from the audience other than to be aware of the possibility of another mission in the future.

Which I, for one, will be more than happy to accept.

1 comment:

  1. "watch Tom Cruise throw himself off of stuff"
    A brilliant phrase. Really a nice review. Well thought out . . . as always.