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Setpiece action movie franchises are rarely this consistently one-upping themselves in terms of their antics.

The Mission Impossible series is a bit of an anomaly. Unlike many other long-running action series, such as Die Hard, they’ve maintained a fairly consistent level of quality on top of being consistently financially successful. Part of that is the seeming unquenchable allure of Tom Cruise. In spite of his apparent instability as a person in the world, it’s tough to deny that this is one of the last bona fide movie stars. Thankfully he’s aging gracefully and has only accelerated his career-long commitment to entertaining the audience, often putting his ass on the line in stunts that I doubt most other action men in Hollywood would attempt.

Rogue Nation is probably the best in the series since the first one. It retains all the expected tropes, tosses a few curveballs, but mostly sticks to basics. Unlike Ghost Protocol, which I liked a lot but feels unsteady and gimmicky (the flashbacks) in retrospect, Rogue Nation has the same spartan confidence and wit as Chris MacQuarrie’s previous directorial effort, Jack Reacher. I think the work MacQuarrie and Cruise are doing together is quickly becoming contentious for the best period of Cruise’s career. Though MacQuarrie has written a few clunkers (Jack the Giant Slayer), he also worked on Edge of Tomorrow. This latest IMF adventure makes he and Cruise 3/3 for entertaining, solid, and occasionally surprising action movies. 

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The CIA wants to absorb the IMF.

There’s a bit of the same meta-commentary happening in Rogue Nation as happened in Skyfall. Just as Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) gets closer than anyone in exposing the secret Syndicate, a “rogue nation” of counter-intelligence operatives recruited to basically destabilize the world, the Impossible Mission Force is receiving an existential threat from Hunley (Alec Baldwin), director of the CIA and overall symbol of “conventional spy shit”. The IMF, by contrast, is the crazy and destructive and colorful spy shit of yesteryear, hilariously described as outdated by the director of the CIA, which wants to absorb its assets and do its counter-terrorism the quiet, extraordinary rendition way.

The commentary takes the form of a running thread in the movie wherein the IMF and it’s ridiculous tactics being totally still relevant and necessary to fight stuff like The Syndicate. It’s the “escalation” principle from The Dark Knight, basically. But underneath that, I think it’s a defense of the type of movie Rogue Nation is. This is less committed to and less successful than it was in Skyfall, where the familiarity of Bond’s tropes helped give credibility to a simultaneous sending up and defense of those tropes for  a new generation. However, Rogue Nation also doesn’t require this stuff to enrich its plot or characterizations while Skyfall maybe kind of does. Rogue Nation interrogates the nature of the IMF as being basically a weapon with which Ethan Hunt can prove he’s the better man against similarly egotistical villains. This is an interesting interrogation of both Hunt and the type of chicken-hawks who approve of and finance real-world lettered agencies, but ultimately Hunt is the better man in a game of high-stakes chess he’s playing with Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the reptilian leader of the Syndicate.

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The Syndicate’s leader is scary at first, but ends up being a big ol’ baby.

Hunt goes off grid to hide from the CIA hunters who, though stymied by Brandt (Jeremy Renner) somewhat, are considering him a danger to American interests. Along the way, he encounters a mysterious beauty who helps him out even though she apparently works for the bad guys. Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is in many ways Hunt’s mirror image and there’s an immediate influx of chemistry, respect, trust, and professional tension between them. That the movie allows for sexual tension while never reducing their relationship to a straight up romance is a testament to its commitment to do the best by a female character that any Mission Impossible movie has done since the second one, where it was 99% down to Thandie Newton’s awesome work that her character transcended the cartoon she was written as. To say even more about this, I think that Rogue Nation would be worth watching for Rebecca Ferguson even if it had turned out to be a bad movie. She is so good, in pretty much every way you could want her to be in a movie like this. Though she is very attractive, the film never hinges her skillset on her appearance and only goes there to establish that Ethan finds her attractive in spite of his conflicted feelings about whether to trust her (even though he does anyway). I hope Ferguson’s career explodes after this since she is as much a revelation in an action heroine role (her physicality is great) as Emily Blunt was in Edge of Tomorrow.

Cruise’s willingness to have his character not be 100% the center of attention all the time is one of his strongest qualities as not only an actor, but as an actor who has a lot of leverage on the productions and writing of films he works in. In fact, he’s the one ultimately responsible fro Rebecca Ferguson’s casting in this movie and that fits well with the fact that Rogue Nation is as much Ilsa Faust’s story as Ethan Hunt’s, especially in the ways their roles in the world mirror each other and inform each other’s concerns and commitments to their way of life. There’s also a lot of love for Benji (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames) and the most for Ilsa. However, Brandt gets sidelined and his character is reduced mostly to hand-wringing, arguing, and a key role in an 11th hour fakeout designed to get Hunley on the side of the now-fugitive IMF while they try to take Solomon Lane down once and for all. I’m not sure if Renner was simply unavailable for much more screentime than he gets or if they just couldn’t write him up a more action-heavy role. He didn’t exactly do a lot of action stuff in Ghost Protocol, but that movie kind of treated him as a successor to Cruise even down to putting him in one of their ridiculous high-tech stunts.

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Ferguson is a monumental badass.

Though fairly contained in terms of its plot and characters, Rogue Nation is satisfying and has few, if any, weaknesses. The other movies in the series all had pretty strong flaws, though Ghost Protocol should always be appreciated for totally revitalizing the franchise after the tonal oddities of Mission Impossible 3 seemed to indicate its decline. I attribute a lot of this to MacQuarrie who is a very strong and minimalist action writer/director who seems to be focused on honing his skills. Going from Jack Reacher to a Mission Impossible movie is a pretty big step, as these movies’ commitment to realistic technical work and location shooting probably makes for a large, expensive, and unwieldy production. I hope he’s got another one in him, because I want to see Ilsa Faust again and I’m hoping that not switching writer/directors again will allow a bit more narrative continuity to flow into the series. In other words, I hope if MacQuarrie sticks around that they choose to follow up on more than the familiar characters. I want to see some growth or trajectory in Hunt and the IMF, since The Syndicate turned out to be just one more group of bad guys to stop, rather than something surprising or different. If I’m allowed to pick some nits, that would be one right there. As slimey and creepy as Harris is as Solomon Lane, the overall threat level and I dunno… aesthetic? of The Syndicate leaves something to be desired. Since the movie focuses on Ilsa Faust and her role as an infiltrator in the group, some of this can be forgiven, but ultimately an evil organization that stands out more might have been that much more special.

That said, there’s a half-baked notion of Lane being basically a global revolutionary who uses the intelligence apparatus and its agents to “change the world”, which is a vague idea in the movie and treated as inherently harmful due to the instability and toll in life and property that it takes. This is a very conservative message, really, and one that thematically favors the continuance of whatever status quo the IMF is supposed to represent. There’d be an interesting avenue of socio-political interpretation of this movie, and probably the whole franchise, that I find myself mostly disinterested in. I think that could be just wanting to like Rogue Nation in spite of its politics, but I also think the term “half-baked” applies. If you’re going to have a spy movie with bad guys and all that, there’s a certain extent to which the politics are obligatory, which somewhat allows this type of movie to skate by on thinly veiled references to real-world individuals or groups. If I think about this too much, I’m reminded of the way Kingsman points its satirical rifle directly at this quasi-tactic by spending a great deal of time on Valentine’s worldview and the purpose of his plans. If I really had to reduce Rogue Nation to political nodes of contention, I’d say it’s got more to do with just order fighting disorder than NSA vs. Hacktivists or Occupy types. I mean, The Dark Knight Rises already exists as basically a neocon fable about the dangers of wealth activism, and Rogue Nation doesn’t even pay lip service to the idea of wealth activism. Solomon Lane just wants to turn the world upside down and doesn’t appear to have a political agenda other than tearing apart the system that created him, probably mostly out of spite. So all this probably means it’s safe to let Rogue Nation skate on its vague politics, if it even has that… but hey, at least I acknowledged this stuff!

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Whoa guys… Cruise is back on da bike.

Setpiece action movies that aren’t also superhero movies are kind of a common thing. Good ones are not common at all. Each of the setpieces in Rogue Nation is at least as ridiculous and awesome and hair-raising as the last one. What’s weird about it is that this song and dance the production people do about how it’s all “real” and not CGI really does make a difference. It lends a certain amount of tension to death-defying antics, where perhaps there’s a cross-pollination of the realization of some real danger and the concern that these plot-armored characters might actually die or something. As a result, you worry about them more than you ever would about Captain America (well, for now anyway). This isn’t a dig against superhero movies either as everybody knows I love that shit a lot. But like, they are different things and it’s interesting to examine how the difference works for a movie like Rogue Nation, setting it apart from lazy, artless, and overly CG’d setpiece action movies like the latest Die Hard or whatever.

There’s still a something that the Mission Impossible movies have got. It might be mostly Tom Cruise, though.

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