“This may very well be our last mission, Ethan…make it count.”
You wouldn’t know it from looking at him, but Tom Cruise is now 53 years old. So it’s only natural to wonder how many more Missions the indomitable superstar has left in him. Well if Rogue Nation is any indication, the above quote is meant to be more winking than prophetic. Just like its tireless star, the fifth installment of the 19-year-old Mission: Impossible film franchise is sprier, tighter, and more energetic than its age might suggest.
“That doesn’t sound impossible.”
If you want to get technical, the Mission: Impossible brand dates all the way back to the TV series of the same name, which aired between 1966 and 1973. Rather than slavishly adhering to its source material, the movies focus on the show’s endless adaptable premise: a team of secret agents known as the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) embark on a series of globe-trotting, high-risk missions. (The first Mission: Impossible film thought so little about the TV show’s continuity that ***19-year-old SPOILER ALERT*** it turned Jim Phelps — played by Peter Graves in the series and Jon Voight in the movie — into a villain.) In fact, the most valuable holdover from the original show is probably Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme music.
The movies have largely been standalone entities, with Cruise being the one major constant. (The first Mission: Impossible was also the first film that earned Cruise a producer credit.) Rogue Nation somewhat bucks that trend as the film deals with the fallout from franchise predecessor Ghost Protocol. After a Bond-style cold open set in Minsk and featuring the already-famous plane stunt, we learn Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has been obsessively hunting a shadowy organization known as the Syndicate, which seems to be comprised of deadly operatives that rival IMF’s own agents. Ethan’s resolve is strengthened when he comes to face to face with Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the apparent leader of the Syndicate.
At the same time, CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is calling into question the usefulness and relevance of the IMF. In a sly meta nod to the franchise’s own preposterousness, Hunley wonders if IMF’s successful-yet-destructive exploits are simply the result of luck. He also posits that Hunt has fabricated the existence of the Syndicate to justify the continued existence of the IMF. As a result, Hunley calls for a worldwide manhunt targeting Hunt as Ethan’s former IMF cohorts (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner) quietly root for Hunley to fail. Hunt eventually enlists the help of his former allies — and works with duplicitous British agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) — to dodge his own government and bring down the Syndicate.
Initially, the Mission: Impossible franchise served as a moldable director’s showcase that allowed for eclectic, uber-stylish filmmakers like Brian De Palma, John Woo, and J.J. Abrams to apply their unique aesthetic to each movie. Although Brad Bird — making his live-action feature film debut — brought a refreshing sense of play to the action in Ghost Protocol, the more lasting impact seems to have been made by Abrams, who joined Cruise as a producer on the subsequent films. The result has been an old-is-new-again return to practical stunts and vintage action movie making. (Abrams is similarly winning back fanboy hearts and minds by embracing practical effects with his upcoming Star Wars movie.)
The person occupying the rotating director’s chair this time around is Christopher McQuarrie, a frequent Cruise collaborator (he directed Jack Reacher) who is best known for his screenwriting (he won an Oscar for penning The Usual Suspects and has writing credits on past Cruise films like Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow.) On the surface, McQuarrie is not exactly a sexy choice when you compare him to the filmmakers who came before him; at worst, you might surmise Cruise simply hired one of his cronies.
“You want drama? Go to the opera.”
I’m pleased to report McQuarrie — who also shares screenwriting and story credit here with Drew Pearce — has crafted a taut, nimble spy thriller. In addition to the opening plane stunt, the film has a handful of remarkable action sequences, including an extended, rhythmic assassination attempt inside a Vienna opera house. The most pulse-pounded stretch, however, is probably a motorcycle chase — a Tom Cruise specialty — that takes Ethan and Co. through the streets (and winding mountain roads) of Morocco. All of these action scenes are great fun in the moment, but they ultimately prove to be somewhat exhausting — it feels like there’s one set piece too many here — and makes the promising story feel mostly forgettable.
“One of these days you’re gonna go too far.”
It’s no surprise the action scenes suffer from a case of “too much-ness” given the personality of the star involved. I haven’t even mentioned the astounding underwater sequence that required Cruise to hold his breath for six minutes. Actually, I’m pretty sure that scene didn’t really “require” Cruise to hold his breath for that inhuman amount of time, and that he did it on his own volition. By now, it’s an open secret that Tom Cruise is kind of a maniac. (It wasn’t until I started thinking about the plane stunt that I realized how much of these films are about Tom Cruise Hanging Off Things.) The actor’s real-life, Scientology-fueled antics have been a major turn-off for a portion of the moviegoing audience, but that same wild fervor is also what has powered many of his greatest moments on screen. (Say what you will about the guy: Tom Cruise will never, EVER phone in a performance.) I actually wish the movie had played some more with the idea that a mentally unstable Ethan fabricated the Syndicate; it gibes with what a lot of people already think of “Crazy” Cruise.
The rest of the actors, just like the characters in the film, are mostly there to support Cruise. There’s really no good reason for Paula Patton’s character from Ghost Protocol to be missing from this film, but Ferguson (The White Queen) winds up being the series’ best femme fatale. Her Ilsa is equal parts tough and alluring, and even gets just enough back story to suggest she might actually be the female Hunt. Pegg, always a reliable source of comic relief, gets to suit up (a tux even!) and mix it up in the field as a bona fide spy. Baldwin is an amusing blowhard of a foil, but is ultimately underused. Same goes for the wheezy Harris, although save for Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in Mission: Impossible III the series has never been a showcase for villains. Renner — who was once being groomed to take over the franchise — is largely relegated to smirking on the sidelines, which confirms my feeling that they’ll have to pry this franchise away from Tom Cruise’s cold, dead hands. Ving Rhames turns up once again as Luther Stickell, seemingly for no other reason than to continue his streak of appearing in each Mission: Impossible film. (I’m good with that, actually.)
Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 29 mbps. Rogue Nation was shot on film — with a few digital exteriors/establishing shots mixed in — and the image has an organic look that helps ground the outlandish action. The tones go from chilly (the high-altitude opening in Belarus) to warm (most notably when the action shifts to Morocco), with the presentation mostly settling into a warmer space. Black levels are wonderfully inky and feature fantastic shadow detail, which is crucial during the operatic set piece in Vienna. On top of that, fine detail is extraordinary throughout. In short, this versatile, top-notch presentation rises to every challenge the globe-trotting story tosses its way.
The Dolby Atmos presentation defaults to a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 Master Audio track. The audio presentation matches the exemplary visuals on this disc. This is a thoroughly dynamic and immersive experience from the start, with Joe Kraemer’s jaunty, propulsive score getting a nice boost from the entire sound field. The track packs an appropriate punch whenever the action ramps up, but it doesn’t do so at the expense of dialogue or any other sonic element. The whizzing sound of cars flying from one speaker to the next during the film’s motorcycle chase is treated with as much care as the subtle rumble of the Airbus from the film’s cold open. The mastery of this track is really on display during the perfectly modulated Vienna sequence: the opera alternates between background noise and full blast depending on how close to the performance we get. So if you’ve been wanting to take your sound system for a spin, Rogue Nation offers a reference-quality track.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD. The featurettes are offered individually, but they essentially come together to form a pretty effective “Making of.”
Commentary by Tom Cruise and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie: The fact that Cruise and McQuarrie are clearly very comfortable together makes this a pleasing track to listen to, in addition to being extremely informative. Cruise and McQuaarie offer a ton of production details/anecdotes and helpfully point out references to previous films in the franchise. They obviously have nice things to say about their fellow actors, but they were also surprisingly open about the loose process of making Mission: Impossible films. That brings us to…
Lighting the Fuse: (5:57) McQuarrie and Cruise talk about coming up with their action set pieces first, then setting out to craft a malleable story around it. The director also says he went back and studied the previous Mission: Impossible movies, which explains some of the Easter eggs in this film.
Cruise Control: (6:33) This featurette focuses on Tom Cruise, the producer. (The original Mission: Impossible was the first film Cruise ever produced. You’re not gonna believe this, but everyone agrees that Cruise is incredibly hands-on and has a maniacal work ethic. (I’m as surprised as you are.)
Heroes…: (8:06) Other cast members get to chime in, since this featurette focuses on the rest of Ethan’s IMF team. McQuarrie compares the team’s dynamic to the filmmaking team’s journey of pulling off these challenging productions.
Cruising Altitude: (8:23) An in-depth look at the movie’s most famous stunt, which Cruise insisted on performing 8(!) times. There’s some great behind-the-scenes footage here, which shows that “falling to his death” was only one of *many* things that could’ve gone wrong while the star was hanging off the side of a plane. (Including getting pelted by high-speed debris, birds, and more.)
Mission: Immersible: (6:45) Of course, the plane scene is just one of the movie’s insane action sequences. This one follows Cruise and Ferguson as they train themselves to hold their breath for minutes at a time, and offers a glimpse at filming the extended underwater sequence. Cruise quips that learning to hold his breath that long was an even bigger challenge than he expected…as if he expected it would be easy to hold his breath underwater for six minutes. (Is there any doubt at this point that this dude is crazy?!)
Sand Theft Auto: (5:35) This featurette follows the making of the thrilling motorcycle chase in Morocco, along with the gravity-defying car chase that immediately precedes it. Either one of those sequences would be the single best action set piece in most movies. Here, they share space in the same 5-minute featurette. Go figure.
The Missions Continue: (7:08) An overall look at the appeal of the escapist franchise. This one heavily features clips from the previous films and explores the thinking behind bringing a different director in each time. Producer J.J. Abrams (a former Mission: Impossible director himself) calls Rogue Nation a sort of “greatest hits” for the film series.
This Paramount release offers an outstanding A/V presentation and a batch of special features that help answer the question a lot of people probably asked themselves while watching this film: “how in the world did they do that?!”
So could this really be the final Mission for Cruise and Co.? (Not if the star has his way.) Based on the thrilling, thoroughly entertaining Rogue Nation, I’m betting we’ll once again be watching Ethan Hunt risk life and limb (and hang off something precarious) before long. Ultimately, the decision will be made by you and your wallets, “should you choose to accept it.”