Friday, July 31, 2015

"Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation" (2015)

Starring Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg and Rebecca Ferguson
Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Rated PG-13 — Violence, language
Running Time: 131 Minutes

Superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has been on the trail of a terrorist organization known as the Syndicate for some time. But he hasn't managed to prove to his bosses in the US that they actually exist, and when the Syndicate does reveal itself to him, it comes at the worst possible time: the IMF has been officially disbanded and its members offered to resign or work for the CIA. Hunt, knowing that CIA director Henley (Alec Baldwin) would never let him continue his search for the Syndicate, goes into hiding to do it himself.

Six months later, the CIA is frustrated with its inability to find Hunt. Agent William Brant (Jeremy Renner) is an aide to Henley, while Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) is stuck working in a data center. Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) decided to retire — again — rather than betray Ethan to the CIA.

Ethan, managing to gather actual intel on the Syndicate and its leader, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) encounters Ilsa Faust, (Rebecca Ferguson) a spy like him who claims to want to take down the Syndicate, except Hunt can't figure out just where her allegiances lie — or why. Ethan and his teammates may soon realize that taking down and organization they can't even conclusively say is real may prove... impossible.

Sorry for the pun. Not really.

Each film in the "Mission: Impossible" is different from the last, thanks to the varying directorial voices employed. Brian de Palma's 1996 original is a twisting puzzle-box of a thriller, while John Woo's 2000 sequel is a Hong Kong slow-mo action piece, while JJ Abrams' 2006 entry is a bit of a reinvention and Brad Bird's 2011 live-action debut is an IMAX showcase. Frankly, the only sour grape in the bunch is Woo's film, which, while it features all the requisite shootouts, impersonations, infiltrations and wild stunt work the series is known for, never really gels.

For the series' fifth entry, Cruise tapped his "Jack Reacher" writer director, Chris McQuarrie. Now, I know that "Reacher" is a bit of a divisive film, but I loved the hell out of it and it showed a lot of the talent McQuarrie has as a director and not just a writer — he's known for penning "The Usual Suspects" and "Valkyrie" for Bryan Singer — and McQuarrie brings all those talents to "Rogue Nation."

Each film in the franchise usually features one show-stopper stunt involving Cruise's Ethan Hunt performing some kind of crazy high-wire act. In the original film it was the iconic, near-silent CIA break-in. In "Ghost Protocol," it was swinging from the top of the world's tallest building in Dubai. Here, the film opens with Hunt hanging off the side of a plane as it takes off and ascends to some 5,000 feet. While there are some cutaways, for the most part, McQuarrie gives us a long look at Cruise actually hanging off the side of the plane as the ground falls away. It's a fantastic shot and a great way to open the film. And, thankfully, since it's one of the centerpiece money shots in the film's advertising campaign, it's great that this is the opening instead of the climax so we avoid having trailers that give away the entire movie. (I'm looking at you, "Star Trek Into Darkness," "Avatar," "Terminator: Genisys" etc.)

From there, it rarely lets up. The film runs more than two hours, and is bursting at the seems for all of it, but still somehow manages to breeze by. McQuarrie stages a lengthy scene at the Vienna Opera, set to the actual opera score, featuring Hunt's attempt to stop three assassins from taking out the Prime Minister of Austria that's a fascinatingly measured sequence, building tension rather than going straight for the jugular.

In fact, for all the film's balls-to-the-wall action, McQuarrie often shows a great deal of restraint. The film's climax takes a step back and goes for a tense stand-off rather than the blistering fight sequences that capped off "Ghost Protocol" or "M:I3." Sure, there's some of that, too, but it's almost a refreshing change from where you think the film will go. Indeed, McQuarrie spends much of the film playing with the audience's expectations. Twists come fast and furious, but never feel gratuitous or excessive. For all the ridiculous stunt work, there's never a feeling of "oh, come onnnn" in "Rogue Nation."

If there's one place the film comes up a little short it's that some of Ethan's team get the short shrift. Jeremy Renner is back from "Ghost Protocol," but he doesn't get a lot to do even if he does get a couple of the film's biggest laughs. Both he and Ving Rhames' Luther feel a bit extraneous — Luther even more so, since his expertise is computers and tech, which also happens to be Benji's expertise. It feels like a little bit of a step back after "M:I3" and "Ghost Protocol" finally got the ensemble teamwork right in this franchise.

Rebecca Ferguson steps into the shoes filled by Paula Patton in "Ghost Protocol," playing another tough spy. Ferguson is more playful than Patton's character was, which helps lighten the tone of "Rogue Nation" considerably. She has great comedic chemistry with Cruise, which works well, and the film thankfully shies from linking the two romantically — nor does the script ever use her as a damsel in distress. She's very much an equal to Ethan in her fighting and spycraft skills, maybe even his better, since she manages to surprise him so constantly.

Sean Harris proves a better villain than Michael Nyqvist did in "Ghost Protocol," simply because he gets more screentime. We know more about him simply because we get to see him do things, which helps immensely. He's not a physically imposing man, and yet, everything he says and does is creepy. The revelation of who he is, the nature and origins of the Syndicate all works really well, thanks both to scripting and Harris' quietly menacing performance.

Simon Pegg provides most of the film's comedic relief, and it's something he does incredibly well. Benji plays an even bigger part here than he did in "Ghost Protocol," and is also the film's actual damsel in distress, which is both hilarious and another successful play by McQuarrie.

And then there's Tom Cruise. What more is there to say about him? The man works extremely hard, and he throws himself into these stunts with an impressive gusto. You're always aware that he's Tom Cruise, but at the same time, he's always capable of making you forget that you kinda hate Tom Cruise. Ethan Hunt is Tom Cruise's one big franchise, the character he comes back to again and again, more than he has any other. It's astonishing to think that this franchise is now almost 20 years old, and yet Cruise hasn't lost his interest or drive to keep doing them.

Writer/director Chris McQuarrie has another winner on his hands, making the fifth "Mission: Impossible" a smart, impressive action thriller. While some of the characters sadly get put aside, the new ones crackle and the film won't let you go.