I suspect that by the time the next Mission: Impossible film rolls around I won’t remember a thing about Rogue Nation’s plot—or much else, except maybe Tom Cruise hanging on to an airplane door. (Or was that the one where he was hanging from a glass skyscraper?) It’s surprisingly pleasurable, a romp through a series a snazzy set pieces that are linked by familiar themes. What’s fun about it comes from how it's executed, rather than any innovation.
And execute, it does. The latest installment in the long-running franchise somehow manages to find the shrinking sweet spot between pretense and camp. The movie never winks at the audience, but it also refuses to take itself too seriously.
After its prologue–one of several echoes of the Bond franchise that seem deliberate–we see Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) adrift. He’s learned that the secrecy and integrity of the IMF force has been compromised, and then he watches a colleague’s execution. Hunt himself escapes the same fate through the intercession of the mysterious Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), who then becomes the focus of Ethan’s attempts to find out and take down a shadowy syndicate responsible for much of the world’s terrorism.
Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Dunn (Simon Pegg) are pressured to help bring Ethan back into the fold by Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) and a group of snotty government oversight types who have the temerity to suggest that the IMF’s track record is mostly the result of . . . luck! (This might be one of the film’s half winks to the audience, signaling that all of us know how absurd this genre is, one in which members of the team are saved from death or torture, by less than a second, through circumstances beyond their control.)
The Bond movies have gotten darker (both visually and psychologically), possibly under the influence of the success of the psychologically-tortured Jason Bourne movies. Even superheroes and their movies appear susceptible to nagging doubts about whether the world is well worth saving.
Yet just as Cruise seems impervious to aging—were his abs this ripped when he was in his twenties?—so too Ethan seems impervious to dark nights of the soul. His nemeses want to destroy the world; he wants to save it.
And while the film is a little cynical about governments that attempt to control their exceptional agents, it never questions whether our way of life ought to be preserved. The people who say stuff like “there are no allies in statecraft, only common interests” and “your government, my government . . . they are all the same” are the ones who’ve given in to cynicism and despair. It seems like Ethan has good reasons to feel the same way. But if he does, he doesn’t talk about it.
Rogue Nation also finds a nice balance between being a star vehicle and an ensemble film. Cruise is the first among alleged equals—so much so that Ethan’s superstar status might grate slightly on those of us who remember the TV show, where Jim Phelps was the leader but every team member was necessary. Still, while Simon Pegg is mostly along for comic relief, his character is not an idiot. Jeremy Renner has settled very comfortably into first mate duties. Mostly, Brandt (Renner’s character) tracks Ethan, who is tracking Ilsa, who may or may not be in cahoots with the syndicate. Ving Rhames is back as Luther, but his part is little more than a cameo. Though he doesn’t get much screen time, he does manage to deliver the film’s thesis, about personal loyalty trumping all other values.
Ferguson is the new factor in the equation—and she’s fabulous, whether she’s fighting hand-to-hand with the henchman, taking aim at a head of state through a high-powered rifle while wearing an evening gown, or telling off her jerk of a boss. Ilsa blissfully subverts the conventions for women in the action genre by being (or appearing to be) both Bond girl and Bond villain in the same movie. She saves Ethan’s life not once but twice. As she and Ethan are scrambling over rooftops, she simply says “shoes” when he offers her his hand. When he fails to register her meaning, she has to remind him that she could probably run a little faster in bare feet. What’s the old rube about Ginger doing everything Fred Astaire did only backwards, and in heels?
Even cinematographically the film feels like a bit of a throwback. In a couple scenes—most notably the opera fight and the final night chase—the lighting and coloring feels a bit more modern and metallic. But it’s nice to have a summer film with a broader color palette, lit so you can actually see it.
Finally, but maybe most importantly, the movie’s pace and editing are a pleasure. At 131 minutes, it does drag slightly at times (car chase preceding a motorcycle chase), but the length has more to do with there being more set pieces, not longer ones. Unlike Age of Ultron and Jurassic World, where an action sequence once started just seems to go on and on and on and on, Rogue Nation knows how to bring a fight or a chase to a conclusion. The ending of one underwater sequence is a doozy.
Rogue Nation isn’t perfect, but it has a wonderful movie-ish quality to it that I realized I have been missing in our summer blockbusters. It’s not the first part of a trilogy; you don’t have to sit through the credits to get a teaser for the Simon Pegg spinoff or introduction to some other team in the IMFverse. It’s just two plus hours of car chases, explosions, beautiful people saving the rest of us, and a reasonable expectation of a happy ending.
Action movies are perhaps the hardest to provide trigger warnings for since viewer sensibilities vary so widely when it comes to depictions of violence. While I thought the PG-13 rating was appropriate, I was surprised that one of my fellow critics said he found the film particularly bloody. One woman is shot in the head while Ethan is forced to watch. While the scene is meant to be traumatic, we don’t see the sort of blood splatter that we might get from an “R” rated franchise. Ethan is threatened with torture, but he escapes (of course) after some punches to the gut and one to the face. There are a couple of scenes of choreographed fighting, though if I had to guess, I would say there were probably fewer punches landed than in Southpaw. A faceless bad guy gets blown up in a motorcycle accident, and another villain gets stabbed in the chest. (Again, not much in the way of lingering suffering of gory detail.) Both Ethan (Cruise) and Ilsa (Ferguson) are shown sans shirt; in her scene, we see only Ilsa’s bare back. One actress is shown in a bikini, emerging from a pool of water, echoing the famous shot of Ursula Andress in Dr. No. I didn’t catch profane or obscene language, but there’s usually one or two in a PG-13 rated movie just because they can. Relative to industry standards, the film seems pretty mild. It is about cool stunts and high-speed chases more than actually inflicting or lingering on substantive human suffering.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.