You can shoot him, stab him, drown him, blow him up or pair him with Thandie Newton, but you can’t stop Ethan Hunt, because he’s played by Tom Cruise.
Returning to make a mockery of the series title for a fifth time, Cruise ploughs through Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, a sequel that is slick with silliness, but peppered with enough wit and peril to sustain the franchise’s momentum.
Cruise is – obviously – the definitive modern movie star. A bizarre and indefatigable charismatic force that can make the bad watchable and the average – like Rogue Nation – actually quite fun. It’s all here: the gee-shucks boyishness, the pointy-hand sprinting, the toplessness – conscripted into the service of a secret agent yarn that’s hustled into shape by his Jack Reacher cohort, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie.
Following the plot is a mission in itself. Hunt’s team, the Impossible Mission Force, has been demonised by the new CIA chief (Alec Baldwin), who has successfully campaigned for it to be disbanded after the IMF were implicated in an attack on the Kremlin. Hunt’s on the run, and his unit – right-hand-man Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and tech whizz Benji (Simon Pegg) – has been co-opted by the CIA. Meanwhile, the Syndicate, a multinational group of ex-operatives, has started to wreak havoc across the globe, because that’s what the world needs to recover from recession, or over-population, or the X-Factor, or something. Hunt will have to re-assemble his unit and tackle whatever-it-is without government say-so. As ever, there’s lists to be stolen, discs to be forged and accomplices that may or may not be building up to a Scooby Doo ending. One of them is MI6 agent Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), who has got close to the Syndicate’s boss (Sean Harris). Maybe, just maybe, too close.
If writer-director McQuarrie was daunted by the prospect of following Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird’s franchise reviver, it’s not showing. Rogue Nation carries the scorch marks of Bird’s work and Brian de Palma’s original, but its key influences are the campy spy cinema of Roger Moore-era James Bond and Sydney Newman’s 1960s TV series, The Avengers.
The light-hearted tone is mostly due to an expanded role for Pegg, who again proves himself proficient at looking astonished and/or peeved at the cool stuff Tom Cruise is doing. It allows for plenty of implausibility, but sometimes McQuarrie stretches his licence to the limit. The spies – left to blow in the breeze by agency and country – are stunned that their state would betray them. Benji, who claims to be a field agent, is terrified when he’s not mystified. Elsewhere, there’s story details that need to be snuck past the audience. Hunt’s first encounter with the Syndicate’s kingpin occurs in a IMF field office disguised as a record store, complete with listening booths. The hideout at the fax machine factory was booked maybe?
Occasionally, this goofiness plays in Rogue Nation’s favour. Alec Baldwin, who looks to be ticking along sedately in the role of chief suited spook, suddenly vaults for immortality with an extraordinary delivery of one line (“Huuuuunt is the living manifestation of destiny!!!”) that could win him an Oscar and a Razzie simultaneously.
Nothing much changes, but it at least feels like everything is up for renewal. Shockingly, the theme music is – after an initial blast – sabotaged. Instead the film’s most exciting sequence – a tussle between Hunt and three assassins sent to murder the Austrian chancellor at the Vienna State Opera – is soundtracked by the on-stage performance of Nessun Dorma. The assassins’ fatal shot is due at the end of the line: “The silence that makes you mine!”. It’s not Rififi, but it’s still a beautifully managed action sequence. Unconventional and quite brave for a mainstream franchise picture.
Also unusual is Ferguson’s role, which threatens to match Cruise’s in terms of screen-time. Her character is given agency and motivation. She’s neither love interest nor foil. Sometimes you wonder, as with Mad Max: Fury Road earlier this year, if the star is the star at all.
There’s the odd clumsy swing at satire (Renner’s character is fond of a Rumsfeld-esque “I can neither confirm nor deny” under questioning), but, unlike Bond or Bourne, this series exists outside of time. Cruise is key to that. His charm and determination (as well as his macho commitment to doing most of his own stunts) will always win out. Pegg will forever be marvelling at the improbability of working with Tom Cruise; Jeremy Renner will wait patiently in the wings for his turn to be the action hero. It seems these roles are immutable and the dynamic will never change. And why should it? Based on Rogue Nation, there seems little need for a shake-up.
This article was written by Henry Barnes, for theguardian.com on Friday 24th July 2015 16.22 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010