Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Jackpot – Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Rebecca Ferguson and Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.

Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is a gambler, according to terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), a loose cannon whose reckless success relies more on luck than solid field work – which is one of the reasons the CIA has chosen to shut down his Impossible Mission Force. Luck does certainly play a large role in getting Ethan out of many of the harrowing situations he puts himself in, but it has nothing to do with the success of the Mission Impossible series, which – through experience, dedication, and craft – might have hit the jackpot on a perfect blockbuster spy thriller with Rogue Nation.

Like the Fast & Furious series, Mission Impossible seems to have taken five films to finally land on its feet and figure out what it wants to be. It’s as if the production team, together with producer/star Cruise, experienced that lightbulb moment of “Oh! This is what MI is supposed to be!” and ran with it all the way to the end zone. Rogue Nation is wonderfully crafted: it’s beautifully shot, sharply written, edited with patience and fluidity, and powerfully acted. Its action sequences are like mini-movies in themselves, each containing their own character arcs and a distinct and flawless structure. It’s the kind of effortless cinematic excitement that is only delivered through extraordinary effort by all involved; I would be lauding Rogue Nation as easily the best action film of the year if Mad Max: Fury Road hadn’t already set the bar so high for 2015.

The film’s setpieces are exquisite clockwork constructions, such as the fantastic cat-and-mouse hunt through a Vienna opera house, which is tense, funny, and exciting, or the late-stage motorcycle chase in Morocco that has Ethan surviving a car wreck only to speed off towards an even more harrowing highway sequence. One scene, entirely free of action hijinks, features four men in a room (one of whom is the British Prime Minister) and a series of such incredibly well-paced switcheroos that it becomes one of the most exciting scenes in the film – and not a single punch is thrown.

This time around, the IMF team is familiar enough (both to us and with each other) that they finally feel like a real team. Simon Pegg as tech expert and unseasoned field agent Benji Dunn is given lots of screentime in this one, and I think he’s wonderful: his character’s hero worship of Ethan Hunt works because Pegg himself clearly feels the same way about sharing scenes with Tom Cruise. I’d say he’s the funniest in the film, but that would do a disservice to both the emotional heft he brings to the table and the excellent comedy work by Jeremy Renner as IMF analyst Brandt. He’s the most physically sculpted person I’ve ever seen sit on the sidelines and worry. He sure likes to pout, probably because deep down he’d rather be out there in the action with Hunt and Benji, but it makes for some more of the great exasperated sad-sack comedy he brought to The Avengers. Perhaps it’s just nice to have Ving Rhames back, as he was sorely missed in Brad Bird’s MI: Ghost Protocol. His scenes with Brandt are wonderful in their sniping back-and-forth banter. There are other great small performances that I won’t ruin here – just see the movie and grin, as I did, to see some familiar faces pop up.

Everyone involved in Rogue Nation works hard, but none harder than its lead. It’s been said that the best special effect in the MI series is Tom Cruise, and the truth of that cliché is abundantly clear here. A few sequences stretch the limits of digital believability, such as one particularly fake-looking car crash, but Rogue Nation’s CGI is (rightly) just a tool to prop up the real thrill of watching Cruise put his body on the line to entertain us. That’s really him hanging onto a massive Airbus jet as it takes off. That’s really him submerged underwater for agonizingly long takes as he infiltrates a data vault. That’s really him zipping down highways at breakneck speeds on that BMW motorcycle, sans helmet or gear. No matter your feelings about the man himself, it’s impossible not to be captivated by the sequences Rogue Nation pulls off through his dedication and grit. Jackie Chan would be proud. (And it should be said that he puts the same amount of effort into his acting, although it yields much less consistent results; luckily, Hunt is a thin enough character that Cruise can muscle his way through.)

Rebecca Ferguson in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.
Tom Cruise is not the only lead here, however: while his Hunt might be the star of the series, Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust is far and away the star of this particular entry. Paula Patton as IMF agent Jane Carter was a gorgeous setpiece in Ghost Protocol, but unfortunately she wasn’t much more than that; she functioned primarily as beautiful set-dressing and was not only mainly included for her ability to seduce information out of crucial targets, but utterly failed at that task in the film (she ended up simply choking her intel out of the Indian billionaire playboy she was meant to sexually coerce, in addition to killing a vital target the IMF needed alive). Contrast her strangely incompetent character with Rogue Nation’s Ilsa Faust, who is every bit Hunt’s equal in physical prowess, survivability, and think-on-her-feet intelligence – a true female foil for our hero, which is something the series has been lacking from the beginning. Michelle Monaghan as Hunt’s recurring wife Julia was a pretty civilian, and Paula Patton was a pretty distraction, but Rebecca Ferguson is a goddamn bonafide movie star, stealing every scene she’s in and playing both sides off one another in an effort to stay afloat. Her constantly-switching loyalties as she hops from saving Hunt’s life to actively trying to kill him would be an irritation in a film that wasn’t as well-written as Rogue Nation, or one that didn’t treat her character as a human being first, an elite spy second, and a woman third (and a beguiling, Golden Age-gorgeous woman, at that – she looks like she could be Ingrid Bergman’s granddaughter. Is it coincidence that a major infiltration setpiece takes place in Casablanca? Just saying). In fact, Faust isn’t just Hunt’s equal, she’s way cooler and more deeply characterized than he is, in all his no-nonsense bluster (I can bring to mind perhaps one line of Hunt’s dialogue – “Nice tux,” to Benji at the opera – that wasn’t pure exposition). Ferguson’s startling breakout performance might be worth the price of admission by itself, and I’d pay to see an entire film revolving around Faust.

Rogue Nation follows Fury Road beautifully in proving that the blockbuster formula doesn’t have to restrict a film to its shallowest, most superficially-entertaining form. In writing and directing Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie demonstrates the value of treating your material with respect, and shows that just because you’re making the fifth film in the series doesn’t mean it can’t be the best one, with the most deeply felt characters, the most exciting plotlines, the coolest gadgets, and the most jaw-dropping action sequences in recent memory (perhaps one of the strongest endorsements of Rogue Nation is that it makes the excellent Ghost Protocol look tired and jumbled by comparison). I mean, Christ, Tom Cruise is 53 years old, and just now made one of the best movies of his career. I strongly suspect that luck had very little to do with any of it.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism. 

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