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Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation

Sorry, folks. I know I’m late to the party on this one. I wanted to catch up on the previous four movies before going in to Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, and I had just finished thinking that it was a total waste of time to do so. Imagine my surprise to find that the film opened with a callback to the first movie while also following directly from the events of the fourth. Indeed, it seems that IMF has been embroiled in a year of controversy on Capitol Hill, after their role in the Kremlin incident and the near-obliteration of San Francisco.

So the IMF has now been officially shut down once and for all, but our man Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, natch) won’t come back home because he’s chasing down a shadowy Syndicate that may or may not exist. Which means that he’s now a fugitive on the run from the CIA. Because it’s not like the global intelligence community hasn’t repeatedly tried and failed to capture him over the past four goddamn movies.

Getting back to the continuity, it’s worth noting that for the very first time in the series’ history, our team of IMF field agents is comprised entirely of characters who’ve been established in the previous films. There’s one debatable exception whom I’ll get to later, but the point stands that it was so great to see the series take advantage of its established cast and not bring out some disposable cardboard character we have no attachment to.

Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner both benefit the most from returning, having respectively established themselves previously as the nebbishy tech comic relief and the self-referential “straight man” comic relief. They both dial it down a fair bit, compared to the fourth entry, but it’s still good to see them back and building on their history with each other, with Cruise, and with the franchise.

Alas, Ving Rhames’ character still shows no sign of a distinguishable personality. He’s the loyal black sidekick, that’s it. I’ve given up all hope at this point.

But then we have new arrival Ilsa Faust, played by Rebecca Ferguson. She’s ostensibly an agent of British Intelligence, charged with infiltrating the Syndicate. So she’s a double agent, which is always so much fun in spy thrillers. It’s never easy to know for sure who this femme fatale is, what her true agenda is, or how much she really knows. She’s such a fascinating character to watch, especially in a series that’s always had so much trouble with its female leads.

The crew this time is very strong, which is a damn shame the film makes so little use of them in the action scenes. This franchise has always been at its best when the heroes work together as a tightly coordinated team to pull off intricate operations. But this time, it’s very clearly The Tom Cruise Show from start to finish. The supporting characters have relatively minor roles to play, but Ethan otherwise goes through every mission pretty much entirely on his own.

That’s not to say the action isn’t fantastic. The stunts are amazing, the fight scenes look great, a ton of creativity went into all of the set pieces, and we go from one big set piece to the other at a good pace. But there were far too many shots and action beats that looked like they could have come from a James Bond film or a Fast and Furious movie. Good on its own merit, sure, but it’s still a gross misuse of what makes this franchise unique.

That said, this movie does give us the single greatest mask gag in the entire franchise so far, so there’s that.

Getting back to the cast, Alec Baldwin is on hand to chew scenery and act pompous like only he can. And he’s easily the best antagonist in this movie. That’s not to say the Syndicate doesn’t make for a worthy villainous force, but only as a sinister offscreen presence. When the Syndicate is this all-encompassing evil organization, watching their plans within plans unspool from the shadows, they work remarkably well. But then the Syndicate is personified onscreen by its leader, played by Sean Harris. And what a disappointment. This is a character who needed overpowering screen presence, befitting a mind worthy enough to outsmart Ethan Hunt, the IMF, CIA, NSA, and MI6 all put together. Harris did not command that level of respect. At all.

(Side note: Also in the supporting cast, Tom Holland plays the British Prime Minister. I expect that everyone who’s ever seen In the Loop will be laughing hysterically at the thought.)

As for Ethan Hunt himself, of course Tom Cruise plays him with the overpowering cockiness and insanity we’ve come to expect from him. In fact, looking back, I’d be interested to see how many of Cruise’s performances from the past 20 years could be traced back to Ethan Hunt somehow.

All of that aside, this movie takes the very intriguing step of calling Ethan’s sanity into question. Hardly uncalled for, given everything this character has been through so far. It’s genuinely fascinating to watch this character field accusations that the Syndicate is merely a paranoid delusion stemming from his need to keep working. Plus, so much of this premise stems from the IMF taking accountability for Ethan’s brash methods and overreliance on sheer luck. Which is an interesting thought, even if Ethan himself never has to take any of that accountability unto himself.

Almost as if to emphasize the point, there are a couple of times when the characters automatically assume that Ethan is capable of superhuman endurance, banking on the invincibility he’s somehow demonstrated through so many movies. Hell, there’s one crucial moment in the climax in which Ethan looks directly into the camera and pretty much says “I’m better than you are. See if I’m bluffing.”

On a miscellaneous note, Michael Giacchino did not return to compose the score. After Giacchino turned in two phenomenal scores for the past couple of movies, he was replaced by Joe Kraemer. Just to recap, this means that the series went from Danny Elfman to Hans Zimmer to Michael Giacchino… to the guy who scored Jack Reacher. To say that it’s a severe downgrade would be a gross understatement. Even if that main theme is still awesome.

Taken on its own merit, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is a perfectly good movie. The action is solid, the comedy relief is effective without being overdone, the spectacle is appropriately epic, and the spy vs. spy material is beautifully tense. But as part of the greater franchise, it doesn’t come anywhere near the highs of the fourth film. That sense of fun and adventure isn’t quite there, and the overwhelming focus on Ethan Hunt — rather than his team — leaves a lot of potential untapped.

More to the point, the franchise is starting to get too over-the-top for its own good. The characters are beginning to grow self-aware, quite frequently wondering out loud how much longer Ethan can keep on pushing his luck before his luck begins to run out. What’s more, his penchant for collateral damage has become a running gag.

I have no idea how much longer this franchise can stay viable, but I am getting a sense that the well may be starting to run dry. Then again, if the series could survive Mission: Impossible 2, what the hell do I know?

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