“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to put up with two hours or so of Tom Cruise obsessing over how good he looks on screen. As always, should you end up rolling your eyes in sheer annoyance, the Secretary will disavow having any idea you were even in the theatre. This message will self destruct in five seconds.” ~ The Director
Ethan Hunt and his band of operatives return in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, the new film by writer and director Christopher McQuarrie (Valkyrie, The Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher). Tom Cruise is back for the fifth time in this franchise, playing the death defying operative while making sure the camera always shows him at his best. Reuniting a number of previous cast members and bringing in new players, we get an action adventure film that tries to live up to the Bond franchise- though it rings hollow, given the lead actor. The film packs plenty of stunts and action set pieces into the story, and the audience comes away from the whole thing convinced that Cruise really needs to stop being in love with himself.
The film starts up with Ethan Hunt (Cruise, aka He Who Loves Himself Too Much) on the trail of a mysterious organization called the Syndicate, a counterpart to the IMF organization he’s part of. He falls into the hands of that organization, and is rescued by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a former British agent who’s joined the Syndicate. Her motives and loyalties remain a question mark, but Ethan joins her in searching for the rest of the group.
Months later, William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) find themselves before a Senate committee that ends in the IMF getting disbanded and absorbed into the Agency. Ethan now has warrants out on him. Brandt is caught in the middle between loyalties to his country and his friend, while Ethan has been busy trying to find the location of the Syndicate’s boss, a rather surly fellow named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). You’d be surly too if you had that name in this day and age. And of course this will lead to a diabolical plot by the villain involving a classified project gone wrong, among other things. All with plenty of opportunities for He Who Loves Himself Too Much to show off way too much.
McQuarrie has more of an extended background in screen writing, though his directing credits include Jack Reacher and The Way Of The Gun before this one. He cowrote the story with Drew Pearce, and wrote the screenplay, and his previous writing work includes collaborations with Bryan Singer for Valkyrie (a film I liked despite the presence of Cruise) and the highly stylish The Usual Suspects. He also worked with Cruise as a co-writer for Edge Of Tomorrow, and has mentioned the notion of coming back to direct another Mission Impossible film, so obviously he can get along with the rampaging ego. He handles an action scene quite well in the way he directs- the film doesn't really equal the high water mark in this series, which was the second film, but then it's pretty hard to compete with John Woo as action goes. Nonetheless, McQuarrie's story spans the globe in exotic locations as we've seen before.
McQuarrie's story is preposterous, of course- the very essence of the franchise is that way. There's the inevitable Macguffin, as Hitchcock would have called it, that thing everyone wants and is important only because everyone wants it. In this case, it's computer files. The films often have a way of trying to keep up with frankly the better franchise- the James Bond films- and doing so with preposterous death defying set piece action sequences. This time out motorbike chases and a plane sequence fill the bill, and Cruise, desperately trying to keep the attention on himself as always, does a lot of his own stunts. The film basically hinges, as we've seen in previous editions, on the notion of building a better mouse trap so that the hero can break in (or out) of them, and that is the case here. McQuarrie does have the right touch in how to film all this, even if the story rings a bit hollow. The fact that it does, however, has less to do with McQuarrie and more to do with the star.
Sean Harris makes for an interesting villain. Soloman Lane used to be in the trade, so to speak, as a spy before going bad and starting up his own service, a mirror reflection of the IMF organization, out for their own ends (their own ends being a little vague). He's ambitious enough, but still shadowy- unlike a James Bond villain who usually has a clear and concise plan (and then makes the mistake of leaving the death of that infernal British secret agent to some lackey instead of doing the job himself) for world domination, revenge, or this week's latest cause. Harris doesn't play the character in an over the top way, though, and while he's not the most formidable villain of the franchise (I'd give that to Dougray Scott in Mission Impossible 2), he works better than Philip Seymour Hoffmann in Mission Impossible 3 (which might be chalked up to the script.)
It's a tradition in these films to bring in an authority figure- sometimes they're sympathetic, like Anthony Hopkins in Mission Impossible 2, sometimes they're surly and irritable like the much underrated actor Henry Czerny in the first Mission Impossible. Alec Baldwin gets to fill the bill, and he has to play the role of Hunley in more than one ways. He's grouchy and irritable, yes, but there are layers beneath that that the actor has to keep hidden, like a card player keeping things close to the vest. I'm reminded that Baldwin played Jack Ryan in The Hunt For Red October, another spy with a bright, curious mind, and it reminds me that the Clancy franchise, like the Bond franchise of book and film, or the Daniel Silva and Jack Higgins literary spies, feature more compelling lead actors (is it obvious by now I don't like Tom Cruise?). Baldwin manages to bring that all about in his performance, keeping other aspects of his character hidden beneath the bluster.
The tech sidekicks have been essential to this franchise since the first film, and both of them are back in this film, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn( Simon Pegg). I've always liked Luther more- Rhames brings a natural charm and inherent coolness to the role, while Dunn's more of a nervous "am I really doing this" technogeek. Both actors get a good deal to do in this film, and they invest both characters with a good deal of likability, quick wit, and fast talking (when Benji's not babbling, anyway). A healthy dose of the humour from the film comes from these two.
Jeremy Renner could easily headline these films as Brandt. He started out in the fourth film, and returns once again as the character, a man who can take care of himself in tough situations, can think quickly in a crisis, and acts with resolve. He's not quite on Ethan's side this time out- officially speaking Ethan's persona non grata, but there's more to that than at first one might think. As an actor he's much more compelling than Cruise, and I found myself wishing the producers would get that and carry on the franchise with a more interesting character in the lead.
The IMF is pretty much a boy's club- Paula Patton, who was in the previous film, is long gone, the fact that Cruise's character is technically married is not even mentioned, and as we saw in the first film, women have a way of dying on Ethan Hunt. Rebecca Ferguson does get to play the engimatic Ilsa Faust in more than one way. We're left to wonder periodically what her agenda is- whose side is she really on? I found the character more interesting than Ethan, frankly, a woman playing all sides off against each other. I'd much rather see a movie with her, both as the character and the actress. She's worlds better than He Who Loves Himself Too Much.
And so we come to the problem of the film. It's entertaining enough, yes, and the rest of the cast do well with their roles- which ironically reinforces the fact that the lead actor has no business in a spy film (this was much the same problem in Valkyrie, where Cruise surrounded himself with great actors, all of whom made him look lesser just by speaking). I mentioned the sense of hollowness earlier, and the idea that this franchise is trying to compete with the Bond films. Well, we know James Bond, because over the years we've gotten to see this complicated spy, his foibles, his strengths, his weaknesses, his coldness, and his ruthlessness. The audience understands James Bond, and that's one of the reasons that franchise works so well.
Ethan Hunt remains a blank slate, an empty character, and that's really on the actor who portrays him. Another actor would have fleshed out some sense of what makes the character who he is, what drives him, why he works in this line of work, but all we get is the mirror image of Tom Cruise, a man who's all style, no substance. And it shows, even in films that I really liked (A Few Good Men comes to mind): Cruise cannot disappear into a role the way many actors can. You're not watching the character with a Cruise film, you're watching Tom Cruise make every effort to make himself look dashingly handsome even in dire circumstances. It's irritating, frankly.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is preposterous, yes, but entertaining enough as a summer blockbuster goes. I recommend it for the action set pieces, the supporting cast, all of whom work well in their roles, and who end up upstaging the star. I just wish the star would take a hint and let someone else take the lead. He Who Loves Himself Too Much hinders the film just by being himself.