“This may very well be our last mission, Ethan…make it count.”
You wouldn’t know it from looking at him, but Tom Cruise was 53 years old when he did this film. 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 spryer, tighter, and more energetic than its age might suggest with the sixth just about to drop at the box office.
“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 who 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 moviemaking. (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-pounding 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 turnoff 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 ultra-high-definition 2160p image is arrived at by an HEVC codec with an average bitrate of 60 mbps. I love that these films continue to be shot on film. That not only provides the organic look that a little grain provides, but it means a native 4K source instead of the typical 2K digital shoots. There is little or no DNR to take away those benefits. That allows you to get the bump from the HD version without sacrificing the things that made this such a nice image presentation. Colors are natural and pretty nearly reference without the need for a ton of color correction. The HDR delivers superior contrast. There’s wonderful texture and detail to be found here. Cruise insists on doing his stunts, and this image is a great argument for why. You can tell it’s him and not a digitally altered character. Black levels are pretty solid with nice grades of shadow definition, which comes in handy with all of the black clothes worn in these films. Movement is smooth here, providing one of the more thrilling chase scenes with the motorcycles.
The audio is identical to the Blu-ray release. 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 dialog 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 opening. 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.
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 McQuarrie 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.
The extras are all on the 2nd Blu-ray copy of the film.
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.
And Rogues: (5:43) This one looks at the bad guys.
Top Crews: (6:40) Tom Cruise talks about how great his crew is and spotlights some of their work here. Nice to see him spreading around some credit.
Opera-Turandot: (4:16) This one gives us a look at the opera sequence. We also get some interesting history of the opera itself.
Practically Impossible: (5:59) The claim here is that there are no visual f/x in the entire film. I’m not sure I buy that, but it’s nice to see how much was done with practical work.
Cut: (7:17) A look at the film’s editing. This is a big part of filmmaking that often gets neglected, but it’s one of the most important. It’s nice to see a feature on the edit team.
Variations On A Theme: (4:50) The cast and crew talk about (and hum) the classic television theme that is still a big part of the film franchise.
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.
Stunts: This selection opens a menu to access more features:
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.
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.)
Parts of this review were written by Gino Sassani