"Mission: Impossible" almost provides a master class in what Hollywood should do when a movie franchise is going wrong.
I am a huge fan of the television series and even watched the strange, lifeless late 80s revival that lasted two seasons. So when I initially heard they were going to turn the series into a film, I was excited. "Mission: Impossible" has all of the elements necessary to make a great action film; exotic locales, determined heroes, dangerous missions, fast-paced and exciting stunts. The series had so many iconic elements – secret recordings, 'masks' used to change identity - it would be fun to see how these were interpreted in a film with a huge budget and great special effects.
Brian DePalma took the reins of the first installment and it seems too much like a paint-by-numbers exercise. There is also a huge narrative mistake made in the first installment, something that took a lot of good will to get over. John Woo took over for the second film and it also seemed problematic. At this point, the filmmakers did a smart thing, they brought in JJ Abrams (who replaced Joe Carnahan, one of Cruise's discoveries who quickly flamed out). Abrams brought a breakneck pace, outlandish stunts and retained some of the more iconic moments of the original series (the use of masks to disguise the hero as one of the villains, etc.) He also had a great villain in Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Finally, this series began to work and Cruise and his partners brought Abrams' company on board to guide the next installments. For "Ghost Protocol" (#4), the team brought in Brad Bird. Bird is a slightly unusual choice as all of his previous work was in animation. Great animation, but no background in live action. This unusual choice helped to create the best film of the series, to date. If you read even the smallest amount of Hollywood industry news, you know that helming one of the installments in a big budget franchise takes a lot of work, more than working on your own film, and consumes the director for a long time, so they usually don't last for more than one or two installments - Josh Whedon on "The Avengers" I & "II" and Sam Mendes on the James Bonds films "Skyfall" and the upcoming "Spectre" are two recent examples. When "Rogue Nation" started production, they brought in a new director, Christopher McQuarrie, best known as the writer of "The Usual Suspects".
In "Rogue Nation", McQuarrie's best contribution is to create a great, fast-paced narrative. But, surprisingly, there is zero character development for 90% of the cast. But that really doesn't detract all that much from the overall success of this film. Character development for Ethan Hunt (Cruise), Benji (Simon Pegg), Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther (Ving Rhames) would be nice. Instead, they are simply reacting to or causing events to happen. The only character development happens in Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, "Hercules", TV's "The Red Tent"). As the femme fatale of the story, there is a lot of conversation about which side she is working with or against and we learn about her history and background.
Character development is always a good thing, but in "Rogue Nation" it generally seems slightly less important. Hunt knows what he has to do and works about getting results. As he gets deeper into the mystery (see below), he enlists the help of the rest of his crew. Everyone knows each other, we know them. They simply get down to business.
Hunt and his team prevent a group of Chechan separatists from obtaining a batch of lethal nerve gas. This captures the attention of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, "Red Riding", "Prometheus"), an ex-British agent who now leads a group of ex-secret service agents, the Syndicate, intent on disrupting governments around the world, creating revolutions and anarchy. His right hand woman, Ilsa, also an ex-British agent, helps Ethan escape from Solomon's henchmen and finds herself consistently running across Ethan, threatening her deep cover assignment. They realize that Kane is trying to get a document stored in a super secretive vault in Morocco and decide they must retrieve it before he can. Meanwhile, CIA chief Hunley (Alec Baldwin) convinces the higher-ups that the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) must be disbanded - they are simply too reckless. Hunt and his team continue their mission to stop the Syndicate on their own.
There has been a lot of press and publicity about the airplane stunt. Each film seems to have one truly outrageous stunt. And because of the recent trend to show off key plot points, even spoilers, in trailers (Chris Pratt riding with the raptors in "Jurassic World", John Connor becoming a Terminator in "Terminator Genisys"), I was afraid they were showing us the climactic moment in the film, giving away the best part. Thankfully, this stunt is not the climax. Much like the earlier installments, the moment is part of the story and happens earlier on. Because these stunts are a requirement of the films - there is talk of Hunt rappelling into an active volcano for #6 - the filmmakers may view them as a distraction, a necessary evil. So the filmmakers work to make them a more integral part of the narrative. This reminds me a little of Hitchcock's cameos. His cameos became so popular that he felt he was obligated to do them, but to prevent them from disrupting the story, he did them very early (right after the credits for "North By Northwest") and in creative ways (in a newspaper ad in "Lifeboat"). The filmmakers know the fans want these moments, but they also want to tell a story. I applaud McQuarrie for continuing the tradition and using the spectacular stunt as part of the narrative. This helps it seem more 'real' (I know, I know, I can't believe I said that) but if these moments were always the climax, they would distract from the mission Hunt and his team are trying to complete. And because the climax is no less threatening, yet 'quieter', it makes everything seem more plausible (I know, I know).
Each of the "Mission: Impossible" films features a series of set-pieces in exotic locales and "Rogue Nation" is no exception. A terrific moment set at the Vienna Opera House leads to a chase through the streets. A multi-level piece set at the vault in Morocco. A hunt in Cuba. These are the types of moments you expect from this series.
Each of the actors wears their part like a comfortable sweater. Cruise's Hunt is as steely and determined ever. Resourceful, he manages to escape one dicey situation after another. More believable than some, Hunt actually does experience some harm and pain over the course of the story. Does he let the pain affect him? No, but you can see it in his face as he forces himself to continue the pursuit. Simon Pegg returns as Benjii, the electronics expert who is always ready with a quip to lighten the mood. Ving Rhames' Luther, the steadfast soldier who is able to step in a variety of situations and help, is back. Newer addition Jeremy Renner's William Brandt helps the team navigate the political morass of Washington, D.C.
The villains, or more dubious characters, provide the new faces. Rebecca Ferguson plays Ilsa Faust (great name) and she really seems to be playing on both teams, keeping the audience and Hunt's team guessing about her true intentions. Sean Harris is also great as Solomon Kane, the leader of the Syndicate. He is a great villain because his plan is rooted, however minutely, in some real world politics. He is also of the quiet and menacing school. Rather than shout and show off his villainy, he speaks quietly, forcefully and has others do the dirty work.
Simon McBurney has a brief role as Atlee, a British secret agent, brilliant in his interpretation of a George Smiley-esque agent complete with a greasy comb-over. Tom Hollander plays the British Prime Minister integral to Kane's plan.
McQuarrie, who last directed Cruise's "Jack Reacher", does a very good job of handling all of the various elements of such a large production. Smartly, he grabs our interest almost before the credits have even ended and then begins to build the story. As we continue to watch, it almost becomes unimportant that the scale of the action seems to decline as the movie continues. By the time this happens, we are hooked and fully engaged in the ride.
"Rogue Nation" falls short of the series great "Ghost Protocol" because there is virtually no character development. You don't really miss it, because the story is so involving, but it would be a nice addition, a nice layer of texture, making the already good film that much better.
"Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation" is one of the summer's best and a lot of fun.