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Thanks to a sharp script that springs a real surprise or two and a pace that never slackens, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation rates as the second-best of the numerous franchise titles of the summer, after Mad Max: Fury Road. Armed with an absorbing mystery plot that does more than just connect the dots between action set-pieces (the most outlandish of which is dispensed with in a Bond-like opener), writer-director Christopher McQuarrie maintains the uptick in M:I quality established by the last two entries, and should land this entry within the series’ customary range of a half-billion bucks worldwide.
Working with Tom Cruise for the fifth time (if you include his uncredited rewrite on the last M:I feature, Ghost Protocol), McQuarrie benefits dramatically from extending the IMF team’s official ostracization to a point of total disenfranchisement from the American government; in an early scene, the CIA chief (Alec Baldwin) succeeds in getting the stealth group shut down, forcing Ethan Hunt’s new partners from the last film, Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Benji (Simon Pegg), to go to work at CIA headquarters. And this is the thanks Ethan gets just after having jumped on to the wing of a giant A400 transport plane, hanging precariously off its side during take-off in a stunt famous even before the film is released — and that it would appear Cruise performed for real.
For his efforts at thwarting the delivery of a stash of chemical weapons material, Ethan is strung up like a hog for butcher by requisitely swarthy members of The Syndicate. This used to be one of the numerous names for American organized crime but has now been appropriated by an international terrorist organization prepared to up the ante to previously unimagined levels of violence and dominance.
The wild card in the deck is an impressively composed and able young woman named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who seems to be allied with The Syndicate, except when she doesn’t. Even if it’s not difficult to guess whose side she’ll ultimately wind up on, Ilsa’s ability to keep shrewd minds guessing about her allegiances is a high-wire act she sustains to very near the end, helped in no small measure by Ferguson, whose grown-up poise recalls that of some 1940s movie stars.
McQuarrie doesn’t change the prescription for what makes this franchise so successful, nor does he have the most practiced hand among the series’ directors at milking the big action sequences for all they’re worth. But he’s deepened the dramatic involvement by so thoroughly casting Ethan Hunt to the wolves that he’s a man without a country or a reliable partner — which is why he’s forced to believe that Ilsa will stand with him at the end of the day despite much circumstantial evidence to the contrary.
Without any support system, Ethan can still move around the world and elude the CIA, which refuses to acknowledge that The Syndicate even exists. He cleverly lures out Benji to help try to thwart a Manchurian Candidate-like political assassination that is spectacularly synched up to a performance of Turandot at the Vienna Opera House. With the CIA believing that Ethan might have been behind this outrage, Brandt slips out of Langley and enlists Ilsa to help track Ethan down before the spooks do.
All roads lead to Morocco, where again, Ilsa’s loyalties flip-flop in two more high-risk set pieces. For the first, in order to snatch an all-important computer chip from an underwater source, Ethan trains to hold his breath for three minutes, but in the actual event, must do so for considerably longer. The second, which is more up Ethan’s (and Cruise’s) usual alley, has him chasing Ilsa — and being chased by the resurgent Syndicate goons — through Casablanca and into the desert on very fast motorcycles driven at very extreme angles.
In the end, however, it comes down to the old spy game — English-style, involving lies, deception, disguises, subterfuge and (dis)loyalty at very high levels. Little by little, the Syndicate’s leader, the blandly lizard-like Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, effectively employing a thin, reedy voice), is forced out into the open if he’s to get what he wants, clearing the way for the ultimate showdown that Ethan has long desired.
The formula of ingredients is familiar and time-tested, to be sure, but some cocktails go down much better than others, and McQuarrie and company have gotten theirs just right here. The protagonists‘ dilemmas are quite extreme, the surprises come in all sizes and the ultra-smooth professionalism displayed in all departments early on encourages the sense that you’re in good hands, a feeling that ends up being justified.
Although Cruise is now 53, he is very far from being a candidate for the Expendables series anytime soon. He looks great, acts with unassuming confidence without needing to ingratiate and credibly conquers innumerable physical challenges. The window between Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation was four years, as quick a turnaround as there’s ever been between franchise entries, so at this rate it’s entirely plausible that the actor could have at least one more Mission in him before Ethan retires to a desk job.
Ferguson, better known for her work as Queen Elizabeth in television’s The White Queen than for last year’s feature Hercules, makes Ilsa a woman of unquestioned confidence and sang froid; crucially, she credibly convinces whomever she’s working with at the moment that she’s on their side. Pegg gets a few moments to shine, more so than Renner, while Ving Rhames — essentially sidelined in the last entry — once again has Ethan’s back. Baldwin is right on the money as the smooth-talking CIA chief.
Along with the great international locations, the film benefits from ace creative contributions all down the line, nowhere more so than from Joe Kraemer‘s virtually non-stop score, which seamlessly blends strains of Lalo Schifrin‘s original TV series theme and Puccini into his own rambunctious but not overbearing work. The presentation in the IMAX format at the press screening looked and sounded terrific.
Production: Skydance, Odin, Bad Robot Productions
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Alec Baldwin
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Screenwriter: Christopher McQuarrie, story by Christopher McQuarrie and Drew Pearce, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller
Producers: Tom Cruise, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger
Executive producer: Jake Myers
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: Jim Bissell
Costume designer: Joanna Johnston
Editor: Eddie Hamilton
Music: Joe Kraemer
Visual effects supervisor: David Vickery
Casting: Mindy Marin, Lucinda Syson
PG-13 rating, 131 minutes
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival