The Mission: Impossible film franchise is fascinating for a couple of reasons. It’s the only multi-episode series that has had a different director for each film, so each episode has had a different style. Brian De Palma’s original was a straightforward “bigger = better” version of the original series while John Woo brought the ying-yang dichotomy of Hong Kong cinema to the table – the hero and villain were opposite sides of the same coin, as in the classic Infernal Affairs, the basis for Scorsese’s The Departed. (Woo also brought his trademark kung fu and gunplay.) With J.J. Abrams the story became more personal with hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) fighting both for his country and the love of his life, while Brad Bird reminded the viewer that it was always the I:M team – not just one main character – who saved the day. Bird also infused the story with surprising humor as well as stunts that took your breath away. The other reason the franchise is fascinating is it gets better each time.
Now we have Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, this time with Christopher McQuarrie in the driver’s seat as director and screenwriter, from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3). McQuarrie wrote the classic screenplay for The Usual Suspects. His follow-up screenplays were less well received, though he established a relationship with Cruise by doing Valkyrie and Jack Reacher before they both had success with last year’s Edge of Tomorrow. For Rogue Nation, McQuarrie uses the template of James Bond, with a globetrotting story that has stops in Russia, Austria, Morocco, and London. He also exceeds the stunt work of Ghost Protocol and that’s not an easy thing to do.
The movie begins with the transport plane sequence featured in much of the publicity for the movie, with Ethan Hunt hanging off of the side of a plane in flight while trying to get inside with the help of computer geeks Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames). (The sequence was done old school, with Cruise actually doing the stunt.) At the same time, Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is trying to save the IMF from a play by the head of the CIA, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), to roll the force into the Agency.
Ethan is convinced a force of former intelligence officers that he calls the Syndicate is operating in secret to destabilize the world. When he goes into a record store to receive one of the classic self-destruct mission briefings he finds himself trapped by the head of the Syndicate (Sean Harris) and then brutally interrogated. He manages to escape with the help of a female Syndicate member, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Branded a rogue agent himself by Hunley, Ethan has to track down and expose the Syndicate.
McQuarrie keeps the story from going too far over the top and fills it with plenty of twists and turns, most of which pivot on the Faust character. Rebecca Ferguson is a Swedish actress with an English mother who had impressed McQuarrie with her work as Elizabeth on the miniseries “The White Queen.” She performs an incredible balancing act as Faust so that the audience is never sure which side she’s on throughout the movie.
Pegg and Renner are now firmly established as part of the IMF, and after only a cameo appearance in Ghost Protocol Ving Rhames is back as a full part of the team. Even though the movie slips back into centering on Cruise’s character, it does overall keep the importance of the team working together to stop the Rogue Nation.
The stunt work is exceptional, in particular a chase sequence through Marrakesh with cars and motorcycles as well as the opening sequence. It’s the literate script, intricately plotted, and that lifts this film beyond a simple string of action sequences and makes it one of the more satisfying thrillers to come along this year.