Unlike most franchises – Fast & Furious aside – the Mission: Impossible series has survived a wobbly sophomore effort to go from strength to strength, with Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the fifth and latest entry, proving to be the best one yet, a thrilling race from one massive set-piece to another, all set in the most cinematic of locations.
In a bold but inspired move, the film cold-opens on the most publicised of those set pieces, which sees evergreen star and the real driving force of the series Tom Cruise dangling from the side of a plane mid-takeoff. It’s a killer opener, giving a stunning reintroduction to Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt, first seen here sprinting from nowhere to leap onto the plane seconds before it takes off. It’s also refreshing to see the film get its biggest set-piece out of the way right from the off, leaving the rest of the film full of possibilities that haven’t been splashed all over the marketing.
This sequence, stunning as it is, is just a warm-up and is ultimately inconsequential to the plot. The real threat for Ethan and the rest of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) this time around comes via The Syndicate, a shady organisation made up entirely of rogue agents who are looking to take down the IMF. Their job is done for them when the CIA, led by Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who believes the IMF are an irresponsible and dangerous agency and disbands them, tying remaining agents Brand (Jeremy Renner) and Benji (Simon Pegg) to desk jobs at Langley.
Ethan, however, is hellbent on stopping The Syndicate and his refusal to stand down makes him a rogue in the eyes of the CIA and they begin their own global manhunt. Caught in the middle of it all is Isla Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a British agent who may or may not be undercover in The Syndicate and manages to keep crossing paths with Ethan.
McQuarrie follows in the footsteps of Brian DePalma, John Woo, JJ Abrams and Brad Bird in stepping into the franchise and applying his own particular style to it. For McQuarrie, that means an added layer of wit to all of the chase scenes and explosions. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Usual Suspects who has made a comeback in recent years – thanks largely to his collaborations with Cruise on Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow – and here he stages some elaborate and smart set pieces, none better than a prolonged and hyper-tense scene at the Vienna Opera House during a staging of Puccini’s Turandot. Ethan creeps around behind the scenes in pursuit of a Syndicate gunman and stumbling upon a few surprises along the way.
As ever, Cruise gives his all to this film. Over the years, he has always felt like the one dragging this franchise along, seemingly hand-picking the best filmmakers he can find – much like he has done throughout his career in general – and giving himself over to them. In this fifth instalment, as well as hanging off of a plane, we see Cruise escape imprisonment through shear core strength, race through Morocco on both a car and a motorbike and in one delightfully silly yet tense scene, perform a daring underwater heist. Throughout most of it, we know it’s Cruise performing the stunts and for the rest, regardless of how insane, we have suspicions that it might be. He loves this shit and that kind of enthusiasm is infectious.
This franchise is undoubtedly Cruise’s show but despite his full array of action chops on display here, much of the spotlight is stolen by Rebecca Ferguson’s revelatory turn as a genuinely complex, kick-ass female character who is far and away the most interesting character in the film. Although there is a slight romantic angle between Isla and Ethan, Ferguson’s character is never reduced to simple love interest, nor is she the standard Strong Female Character, which more often than not means a woman doing things that men do. This is a character with agency and complexity and problems all of her own and Ferguson more than holds her own opposite Cruise. Props too to McQuarrie for never introducing a token female baddie for Ferguson to mix it with; instead she gets to throw some guys around.
If there’s a downside, it’s the villain. Perennially creepy Brit Sean Harris plays the leader of The Syndicate and his performance is good but he is largely underutilised to the point that he barely registers. It seems to be a recurring theme in franchise movies recently – can anyone remember the baddie from Ghost Protocol? – but thankfully the presence of Harris and The Syndicate gives enough cause for the globetrotting action set-pieces.
Rogue Nation has the air of a franchise that’s fully hit its stride, a confident and assured action effort with everyone on top of their game. McQuarrie seems to be a perfect fit for the material and with Ferguson giving such a memorable performance, it would be great to see the series buck the trend of rotating both directors and female characters and have both back next time around.