Chaos reigns. Sirens wail. Crewpeople scatter about in a panic, frantically shouting into walkie-talkies and headsets. Tom Cruise lies on the ground, mortally wounded. Perhaps there is a spear of debris through his chest, or 90 percent of his body has been burned, or he’s fallen 50 feet and broken most of his bones.
The stunt went all wrong … or perhaps too well. It was thought to be impossible to execute without CGI, but Cruise insisted that as much be done practically as possible. The insurer had a conniption when they read the proposal. But Cruise ignored all warnings. He would not be dissuaded in his quest.
The director of the film kneels down next to Cruise, not knowing what to do, only able to lay a hand on his shoulder in a desperate attempt at reassurance. Cruise’s eyes flutter open. In a surprising display of strength, he seizes the director’s hand and pulls himself close to their face. With inhuman effort, he wills the words past his lips:
“The shot … did we get … the shot …”
The director is taken aback, but, baffled and reluctant, nods.
“Yeah, Tom. We got it. Now just hang on. Help is on the … Tom? TOM?!”
Cruise relaxes — first his hand and neck, and then the rest of his whole body, as he lets himself go. He is not needed anymore. Finally, after years of trying and failing, he has fulfilled himself. Tom Cruise’s eyes close and a content, beatific gleam overcomes his face as he dies in a state of perfect peace.
There’s a lot of nonsense plotting in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation that’s nearly as unnecessarily convoluted as the punctuation in its title. It’s an annoying element of overjustification that’s a departure from the purity that the film frequently achieves. Its action sequences are things of beauty; marvels of staging and efficiency and logical progression and excitement and suspense. In these scenes, all the bullshit about ambiguous loyalties and macguffins fade away in favor of human vs all the titanically absurd things that wish to kill them (and fail).
The IMF is back and Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is after a shadowy organization blah blah blah gets framed as a traitor yada yada goes on the run whoopie flip jumps through a bunch of hoops to get the stuff he needs and I’m running out of silly filler words. M:I-RN's one great sin is in trying to take serious the words that should serve as nothing more than an excuse for the next big setpiece.
The goals of the action blockbuster and the goals of the spy film that has Something to Say about geopolitics are at odds. Thankfully, the story and dialog never stoop anywhere near the depths of Nolanism, but there are unwelcome allusions to intelligence agencies’ covert state toppling and rebuilding that throw a wet rag over the fun. More to the point, the need to exposit away all the double crosses (most of which come from one character) and own up to just what the story is about (which comes extremely late in the game) stops the movie dead for stretches of time, most damagingly just before the final series of fights and chases. The villainous organization at the movie’s center, The Syndicate, is emblematic of this. Supposedly an “anti-IMF” made up of former spies and assassins, in practice, it’s indistinguishable from any other baddie get-together from any given Bond or what have you. The ticcy main villain is kind of fun at times, though.
But whatever. Most blockbuster scripts are doofy — the best we can usually hope for is that they stay out of their own way. And director Christopher McQuarrie’s script does indeed do so where it counts the most. The already-iconic image of Tom Cruise for-realsies clinging to the side of a plane taking off is literally just the beginning of the madness in this movie — it’s the opening sequence. From there, we get a dizzyingly complicated attempted assassination backstage at an opera, a clockwork underwater computer vault heist that required Cruise to hold his breath for six minutes, an alarmingly fast motorcycle chase, and more. It is here that McQuarrie is an utter pro, he and his crew assembling each setpiece with delightful precision.
The cast, too, is having way more fun when they get to hop and skip and punch and shoot about, rather than hash out secret bank accounts or whatever. Cruise’s mad physicality aside, he demonstrates again that he can somehow be both superhuman and human at once. Alec Baldwin gets many lampshade-hanging speeches about the absurdity of the IMF’s adventures in this film, and his final one strains the supports of the fourth wall, as he describes Ethan Hunt as the embodiment of destiny itself. And yet the sometimes slapstick quality of Hunt’s escapades (a wise carryover from Ghost Protocol), the fact that he gets smacked down and exasperated and frustrated so often, keeps the sense of danger thrillingly alive.
Besides Xenu’s golden boy, Simon Pegg is winsome as ever as techie Benji, and it’s good to have Ving Rhames back on the team after a mere cameo in Ghotocol. Jeremy Renner is likable, although I’d swap him out for Paula Patton in a heartbeat (curse you, Warcraft). But they’re all small potatoes before the magnificence that is Rebecca Ferguson. Rebecca. Ferguson.
There’s been more chatter than usual this summer around competent lady action heroes in film and television, and Ferguson’s Ilsa casually tosses a grenade into the fray and struts away with perfect poise (not looking at the explosion, of course). A magnetic fulcrum of pivoting loyalties, she’s a genuine engima rather than a cipher. Her’s is the aspect of the story that comes closest to genuinely getting at what the overall piece is trying to say about the way organizations treat their agents. But more to the point, Ilsa is stunningly, awe-inspiringly competent. She’s a no-nonsense powerhouse who can match Hunt move for move, and is frequently one or two or more steps ahead of him. Don’t let Ferguson slip from the spotlight. She deserves to be shooting people and doing other things in movies for a long time.
Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is the best movie of the summer that doesn’t have post-apocalyptic gearheads or male strippers in it. Death may have shook its head at Tom Cruise’s plea for sweet apotheosis on this one, but he’ll have his chance later. For now, bask in the vicarious thrill of his agony and ecstasy.