The hard drives are concealed in lipstick cases and the latex face masks are now molded with the help of a 3D printer, but the considerable and surprisingly consistent pleasures of the Mission: Impossible series rely on more vintage touches: ambiguous bombshells of a classical Hollywood beauty; Cold War-era villains; and Tom Cruise’s eternal commitment to scaling buildings, escaping shackles, and crashing through plates of glass. Mirroring phases of the star’s career, the franchise has cast Ethan Hunt as a cocksure maverick (De Palma’s original), devoted romantic (John Woo’s sequel), and a prospective husband (in J.J. Abrams’s 2006 reboot). Since then, a series which has never shown much interest in character-building has become the perfect embodiment of Cruise’s illegible reputation. Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol rendered Hunt an avatar, nearly silent in his service to the director’s kinetic set pieces, which played like Pixar scenes come to life. With Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie largely stays the course, though he can’t resist winking at how this franchise manages to defy the limits of both human endurance and its superstar’s rickety public status.
Like every other tent pole this summer, Rogue Nation finds the operations of the Impossible Missions Force at risk of obsolescence. Alan Huntley (Alec Baldwin), director of the C.I.A., has absorbed the group and rendered its agents middle-managers (Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt) and IT lackeys (Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn). While Huntley blusters about incapacitating Hunt and his team, Ethan begins the film clasped to the door of a flying cargo plane, which contains a pallet of nerve gas Hunt connects to an organized terrorist network known as the Syndicate. The group, composed of rebels and intelligence operatives who’ve long been lost or presumed dead, is run by a reasonably effective Slavo-Nordic menace, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), with a thin voice and shiny suit. His world-beating aspirations begin as a string of seemingly disconnected but economically destabilizing events: a plane crash over Jakarta, a chemical plant explosion in Malaysia, and the attempted assassination of the Austrian chancellor. It’s up to Hunt, globetrotting a step ahead of Huntley’s watchful eye, to get to Lane with a little help from his old friends. In his way are Lane’s chief henchman, the “Bone Doctor” (Jens Hulten), and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a gorgeous British double agent posing as a Syndicate apprentice.
In tribute to Hitchcock, or at least De Palma’s riffs on Hitchcock, McQuarrie’s script manufactures some bogus complexities, reveling in using Ilsa’s precarious mission as an opportunity for suggestions of double- or triple-crossings. More interesting, though more distracting, are the script’s plodding experiments with self-conscious commentary, which dwell on whether Hunt and the IMF manage to succeed through spy craft or sheer luck. McQuarrie, director of Jack Reacher and writer of The Usual Suspects, is the least distinctive filmmaker to take the M:I mantle thus far, and his harsh cuts and blunt-force approach diminish one or two of Rogue Nation’s many marquee action sequences. De Palma could have mined even more tension out of the complex spatial dynamics at a performance of Turandot at the Vienna Opera House, and any previous series auteur would have improved a chaotic car chase through the alleys and temple steps of Casablanca. Nonetheless, the scenes offer a visceral kick, thanks to the franchise’s dedication to bending the limits of human potential, which innately channel’s its star’s thoroughgoing fixation on forcing the impossible to maintain a shred of plausibility. Rogue Nation doesn’t need the meta text about chance and skill to keep audiences engaged. With Cruise on board, the film is guaranteed a surfeit of subtext.
Back to that lackluster chase in Casablanca: It comes right after Hunt’s heart stops at the climax of a dive into some kind of underwater turbine-cum-server bank, and right before a motorcycle chase through the hills and highways of Morocco, all thrills and sensual curves caught through the lens of the great Robert Elswit. Through this triptych of action sequences, Ilsa goes from friend to foe and perhaps back again. As the steely female complement to Cruise, Ferguson is the film’s secret weapon, always threatening to sexualize a relationship the film leaves notably chaste. Ilsa unfastens a single button of her blouse before an interrogation, and removes her heels before a few impressive sets of acrobatics, and Hunt looks at her with a gaze that barely expresses something beyond approval. With charismatic actors like Renner, Pegg, and a returning Ving Rhames at Hunt’s side, the film has a good time pretending it’s about teamwork and friendship, but the series has become more compelling as Hunt has become more divorced from human impulse and attachment. An early scene finds Hunt trapped in a glass box he’s unable to escape. It’s an appropriate metaphor for celebrity, one that leaks into every scene highlighting Hunt’s physical dedication as he nearly drowns, falls from a height, or risks disfiguration in a haze of shattered glass. Rogue Nation transforms “Live. Die. Repeat.” into a lifestyle choice bent on proving the vitality of its star.