You’re getting old, Ethan Hunt
by Thom Yee
It feels like it’s been a while since Tom Cruise has done anything all that weird, and by now, even the most ardent KSW-questioning, couch-preservationing, short-person-hating, parents-should-spend-time-with-their-kids-believing critics should be able to admit that he’s made some pretty solid movies lately. And what more can we ask for than that? I don’t go to a Tom Cruise movie to watch him defend Scientology or explain why his last marriage didn’t work, that’s not why I go to movies and those subjects aren’t all that interesting even outside of movies. I go to movies to watch something entertaining and hopefully engaging, and in that way Tom Cruise continues to be the perfect action movie star.
The perfect 53-year-old action movie star.
When you look at a franchise like Mission: Impossible, where stunts like swinging between rooftops in Shanghai or dangling from the side of the tallest building in the world have become table stakes, and then you realize you’re looking back at a series that’s almost 20 years old and had the same actor in the starring role for all of that time, you might notice a curious incongruity. That incongruity isn’t that a 50-plus-year-old man is personally doing his own stunts in some of the most stunt-oriented movies currently being released, but how come we’re still buying it while also outright ridiculing the same from 60-plus-year-old men trying to do the same in other movies.
And it’s because Tom Cruise is the perfect 53-year-old action movie star, and he’s starring in surprisingly accomplished action movies. We’re just lucky that most of those movies are also kind of interesting.
What’s it about?
Veteran IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) finds himself on the run from both CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) and the leader of the mysterious Syndicate after the disbanding of the IMF. With his investigations slowly revealing the secrets of this Syndicate rogue nation, Hunt enlists the help of former colleague Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) alongside the mysterious Syndicate counter-agent (or is she?) Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) to track down its leader even as long-time allies William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) work to keep Hunley off Hunt’s trail. Hilarity ensues.
For an almost 20-year-old franchise spanning three decades, it’s kind of disappointing that we’re only on the fifth one. Mission: Impossible seems to be edging itself closer and closer to evergreen status à la James Bond, but it’s been coming to us with at least four years in between installments, which is kind of slow all things considered. It is the producers’ own fault, however, for why they don’t have at least one more successful film’s worth of earnings to draw on at this point.
When the first Mission: Impossible came out, I had only recently made my way into the double-digit age category, and especially at that age it was a pretty mind-blowing film, filled with betrayal, gritty espionage, high-concept set pieces, and breath-taking action scenes, and it had a definite effect on my movie-going tastes going forward (even if I never intentionally watched another Brian De Palma movie again). And then the sequel came out, and for a while it seemed like all hope was lost. I can still remember coming out of the theatre after watching Mission: Impossible 2 with a disillusioned bitterness that may even have influenced a significant part of my early 2000s. We’re not here to vilify John Woo or blame his Hollywood works on the breakdown of our own personal characters, just like we’re not here to lionize his earlier Hong Kong films (at least not in this review), but we can certainly say that his Mission: Impossible 2 set the series back by more than a few years, and it took the soft reboot skills of J.J. Abrams to re-establish the series’ franchise viability.
In sharp contrast, here on the tail end of the post-Ghost-Protocol afterglow, the success of Rogue Nation as the series’ fifth seems like a sure thing, especially after the confidence Paramount showed in the movie when they moved its release up by five months, even if they may have mostly been a strategic move away from another little movie coming out this year.
Is it any good?
I don’t think there was really ever any doubt that Rogue Nation would be good, it was just question of where it would rank in the Mission: Impossible pantheon (y’know, other than far above Mission: Impossible 2). Even though the movies are of a very specific type with very specific formulas and very specific expectations, there’s still enough intrigue and internal storytelling latitude to make for a relatively different experience with each installment. Looking back, the series has employed a striking array of very different directorial talents that in some ways is almost a dream team fantasy list (and that very much includes John Woo, despite the results). It should also come as no surprise that it’s a convincing and triumphant action movie on a level few if any recent movies have reached. Again, stuff like that is table stakes in a series like this.
That said, as an action movie I would rank it among the least of the series, though that’s nowhere near the insult that it might seem. There’s a workmanlike quality to Rogue Nation that none of the other movies in the series displayed, and though all of the action in Rogue Nation is stunning and imaginative in its own way, it lacks the sheer inspiration and originality of any of the others, especially Ghost Protocol. I’ve never been that big a big fan of vehicular chase scenes, however, and that type of action that constitutes arguably the biggest action sequence in this movie.
One thing that does set Rogue Nation apart is its portrayal of Ethan Hunt as a flawed protagonist, one possibly on the verge of conspiratorial madness in his quest to prove the Syndicate’s existence. Though the series has always pushed its characters to the brink in each of its impossible missions, this is the first time Hunt outright fails and has to be bailed out of one of the movie’s key set pieces. Portions of the movie feature Hunt barely holding it together and stumbling around in a daze, at times limping through the streets of London rather than his trademark full-speed sprinting. It’s one of the only times we see the character from a position of true vulnerability, though the subtext of these scenes also includes the character suffering from a lack of oxygen to his brain.
For a long time I’ve lamented the lack of returning women to the franchise, with all of leading ladies Emmanuelle Beart, Thandie Newton, Keri Russell, and Paula Patton failing to return (though to be fair, only half of those characters survived). If Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell, Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt, and Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn can star in multiple installments, it seems unfair that most of the women are written out (usually because their relationship with Cruise’s Hunt has exhausted itself by the end of their individual movies), especially considering everyone from Ghost Protocol but Paula Patton’s Jane Carter returned for this one. I will admit, though, that the continuing of this trend did work well for Rogue Nation specifically because it allows Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa to take centre stage, both in her relationship to Cruise and as her own character.
The weird thing about Ilsa Faust is that there’s a recognition between her character and Ethan Hunt that runs throughout and drives much of Rogue Nation’s narrative. There are obvious parallels between the characters, but the moment where Hunt literally has to clarify that the two have never met is particularly meaningful in the development of their relationship. Classically a woman in a Tom Cruise movie is a love interest, but ultimately the reason why that’s never even an undercurrent throughout the movie is that Ilsa Faust is a parallel of Ethan Hunt himself, an aspect of his character, and one that comes off as the smarter, more sane and more well-adjusted version, particularly when you see how crazy Hunt starts to seem in Rogue Nation. For me that became clear when (unlike Paula Patton’s Jane in Ghost Protocol) she escaped unscathed from the final shootout and was allowed to play an equal (if not greater) part in the good guys’ (spoiler alert?) ultimate victory at a level that most female leads in ensemble action movies are never allowed.
Of all of the Mission: Impossible movies, Rogue Nation is also probably the funniest, and it’s funny in a lot of different ways and in a lot of different places. Humour is sprinkled throughout in a way that keeps the film far from a comedy but still strikingly funny. Simon Pegg has obvious comedic timing in pretty much everything he does no matter what he’s doing and no matter what his role is, but even relatively flat characters like Brandt and Stickell are given their own comedic turns, and Alec Baldwin’s Hunley, though a very serious character, gets one of the funniest jokes of all with his slideshow of the remains of Kremlin after the IMF’s mission in Ghost Protocol. Even beyond comedy, all of the principal characters get their own moments, even if their roles have been diminished from previous installments, and really the only underdeveloped thing in the whole movie is the main bad guy’s jawline.
So should I see it?
For me personally, Rogue Nation may be the least of all of the good Mission: Impossible, but objectively I think it might be the best overall. The reviews are frequently placing it at or near the top of the franchise, and I will say that it’s consistently inched its way up from the initial 3 stars I would’ve given it after my first viewing. It’s perhaps the most episodic feeling of all of the installments and in that way may fit best into the overarching legacy of the broader Mission: Impossible property, and it’s the one movie out of all of them that’s the most believable and grounded without losing the essential incredulity at the heart of the series.
Of course, as when any new Mission: Impossible comes out, there comes the necessary duty of rating it against the others, and while it’s possible for me to rank them, it’s more accurate to say that such rankings would be more of a snapshot of how I’m feeling at any given time than a defined list. Other than unequivocally labelling Mission: Impossible 2 the worst and a near-complete waste of time, every Mission: Impossible has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. If you want to see an espionage thriller, see the first, if you want to see a good villain and the most tense chapter, see Mission: Impossible III, if you want to have the most fun and watch crazy stunts, see Ghost Protocol. And if you want to see the best one, this one just might be it. But I might tell you something different next week.
Thom’s Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation final score
On the Edge
- Ilsa’s parents must have realized that by giving her that name they were naturally pre-determining her career path towards being a spy. It’s like when you name your kid Meghan because you’re stocking up for a b*tch shortage.
- Fun Fact: Ethan Hunt never once fires a gun in the first Mission: Impossible.
- More Fun Facts: Every single Mission: Impossible features a rogue agent or some kind of betrayer as the main villain.
- NOC list reference!
- Rabbit’s foot reference!
- Echoes of Casino Royale’s with the motorcycle crash.
- This time we get Nokia and Dell product placement instead of Apple. Somebody’s gunning for Windows 10.
- What a massive waste of product placement all of these Windows Phones in all of these movies and TV shows, btw.
- Guns disguised as regular items is to Rogue Nation as masks is to Mission: Impossible 2.
- I can hold my breath for a minute and twenty-three seconds. You don’t want to know how I know.
- That Meghan thing was a Community reference, btw.
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