As spearheaded by producer and star Tom Cruise, the Mission: Impossible films have quietly followed the opposite trajectory of the bloated, indecipherably “mythos”-laden Hollywood tent poles that presently glut theaters. These films began as upscale summer entertainments helmed by respected stylists, which was less common in the 1990s than it is today. But the series settled into a distinctively less distinctive groove after John Woo’s hyperbolic Mission: Impossible II was unjustly ridiculed. As other franchises attempt to outdo one another for operatic fatuousness, these films grow sleeker and more playfully reminiscent of one another with nearly every entry, seemingly existing in their own orbit, distinguished by the escalating immersive-ness of the fabulous action scenes, which appear to spring from Cruise’s eager-to-please obsessiveness as the series’s ultimate auteur.
The third, fourth, and fifth films have the same wisp of a plot, in which Cruise’s über man of mystery, Ethan Hunt, goes rogue after his espionage organization, the IMF, either turns on him or goes bust for whatever inessential reason the screenwriters have dreamed up at any given time. And Hunt has evolved into even less of a character over the years than he was in the first and best film, where he was already a deliberately rendered cipher. Cruise and his collaborators have somehow turned impersonality into an asset, a minimalist fashion statement—or at least as minimalist as an expensive corporate product can ever hope to be. The fourth and fifth Mission: Impossible films are the cinematic equivalents of beach reads that refreshingly regard themselves as such, cutting to the oft exciting chase with little of the tedious expository throat-clearing that routinely mars Marvel or D.C. products, the recent James Bond films, The Hunger Games series, or anything recently directed by Christopher Nolan.
The fifth and most recent entry, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, is the most enjoyable film in the series since Woo’s outing. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie settles on an aesthetic that fits in somewhere between the workmanlike anonymity of J.J. Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III and the graceful comic precision of Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. McQuarrie is a wittier, more volatile director than Abrams, and though he lacks Bird’s formal ingenuity, he brings a certain rough-hewn panache to the proceedings. Rogue Nation is crueler than Ghost Protocol, which was still larded with a bit of that dulling, obligatory earnestness that Abrams injects into almost anything that bears his name as director or producer. Though Abrams also produced this film, it nevertheless emits a comic nastiness that unexpectedly highlights the series’s genre roots as a copy of a copy of Cold War-era spy fiction.
McQuarrie and the gifted cinematographer Robert Elswit, who also shot Ghost Protocol, inform this film’s imagery with subtle but palpable luridness. When Hunt ducks into an anachronistic phone booth somewhere in Britain, we see the oranges of nearby club life reflecting off his face, somehow signaling his aloneness, and the bright red paint of the phone booth itself is positively sinister. The wealthy patrons attending an Austrian performance of Turandot wear priceless garments that glow with an aura of gorgeous, moneyed rot, suggesting that Paolo Sorrentino might have taken a break from helming Youth to supervise second-unit shooting. One can occasionally even see the worried, aging faces beneath the makeup and the jewelry. Even Cruise, no one’s idea of a humble movie star (assuming such a creature exists), is often allowed to look weathered and beaten.
Eddie Hamilton’s editing is pointedly jagged, particularly compared to the smooth rhythms of Ghost Protocol. Beats often appear to be nipped off mid-movement, most strikingly in the fantastic motorcycle chase that occurs near the end of the film, or when Hunt dives into the huge man-made funnel-slash-waterfall that somehow protects a giant computer that’s required to, well, the specifics of all that don’t matter. What matters is the sight of Hunt jumping into the water, and the surprise of him leaping without the usual anticipatory fanfare. He just goes for it. It’s this sort of unfussy touch—unheard of in most contemporary franchise place-markers—that asserts a hero’s larger-than-life bona fides.
Cruise has aged into an exceptionally confident physical performer, one who’s insidiously capable in selling the audience his faux humility. Like every Mission: Impossible preceding it, Rogue Nation is firstly a testament to Cruise’s exceptional, well, everything, which the actor shrewdly counterpoints by allowing his exhaustion to show. These films always boil down to their star’s breathlessness. But Cruise has also learned how to occasionally cede the center stage, if for no other reason than to seize it again later with even greater emphasis than before. But these films could still use a sense of humor. When a character goes on and on about Hunt’s amazing-ness, for instance, one hopes he will rip off one of those fancy masks to reveal the speaker to be Hunt himself—a man who shares his creator’s gift for hyper-managed poetry of efficiency.
The image is outstanding, with a notable sense of cinematic grit that’s increasingly unusual in contemporary blockbuster fare. The colors are deep and luscious, especially the blacks, grays, reds, oranges, and blues, often causing Rogue Nation to resemble a cross between a superhero comic book and the various 1970s-era spy thrillers that clearly informed Christopher McQuarrie. Flesh tones and textures are well-detailed (one can occasionally see hair subtly standing up on skin), and image depth is extraordinary. The various soundtracks are similarly top-notch, with the stand out being the 7.1 Dolby Atmos, which captures a wide variety of aural effects, balancing bass-y explosions with lush opera with all the minute click-clacks that comprise the noises one associates with cloak-and-daggering, such as the rat-a-tat of shoed feet walking down long hallways, or the furious punching of keyboards. These tracks are subtle and pinpoint precise, linking every sound effect explicitly to a visual cause, rather than enveloping one in a chaotic stew of noise.
The short featurettes are fun, particularly "Cruising Altitude" and "Mission: Immersible," which briefly document the shooting of two of Rogue Nation’s most memorable and dangerous stunts. But the on-set footage included here isn’t nearly as revealing as the supplemental material included on the Ghost Protocol disc, and the various featurettes could’ve easily been condensed into one succinct, quasi-informative puff piece. The audio commentary with McQuarrie and Tom Cruise is rich in puffery as well, with plenty of talk of how brilliant everyone is, but their conversation is also peppered with evocative details concerning editing, set construction, location selection, and, of course, Cruise’s highly publicized determination to do his stunts himself.
Paramount rolls out the formal red carpet for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, a glamorous spy fantasy with shards of playful wit and meta derring-do.