Review: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (McQuarrie, 2015)

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Tom Cruise is back fighting the shadowy world of international espionage in this globetrotting fourth sequel to the original 1996 hit. Boasting everything one would want from the increasingly preposterous franchise – car chases, futuristic gadgets and a hell of a lot of Cruise himself – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, even if it is a big dumb blockbuster, shows exactly what a modern action film should look like. Just don’t think too much (or at all) about the film’s plot. One tug at the thread and the whole thing falls apart.

Beginning on a runway where Ethan Hunt (Cruise) manages to intercept the transfer of an illegal shipment of nerve gas making its way to terrorists – a sequence for which credit must be given to the 53 year old actor for actually hanging off the side of an airborne cargo plane – Rogue Nation maintains its breakneck pace as the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) agent races to uncover a mysterious organisation known as the ‘Syndicate’. The Syndicate is the ‘anti-IMF’: an organisation willed into existence by former ‘presumed dead’ IMF agents who have surfaced once again only to use their skills and knowledge to corrupt the governments and organisations which first trained them. Coming face to face with the head of the Syndicate in London, Hunt’s ability to track down the mystery man is hindered by the news of the CIA’s investigation and overhaul of the IMF back in the USA – led by director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) – following the disastrous events depicted in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Going rogue himself, Ethan recruits the help of his former colleague Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) in order to pick up the trail in Vienna where he believes the head of the Syndicate will be seen next.

The remainder of the film, as should be expected, is built around a handful of typical spy-thriller set pieces, including a car chase through Casablanca, the infiltration of a top secret data storage facility and a final game of cat and mouse through the city of London. Indeed, it’s by-the-numbers plotting, but feels more intelligently choreographed and engaging than the recent example of Southpaw, which I also accused of being too predictable. As another example of cookie-cutter film-making, both films stick to their respective genre formulas, but there is something far more striking and compelling about Rogue Nation than Southpaw, even if its denouement can still be seen from a mile away.

Perhaps what makes it more interesting than some other contemporary action-blockbusters is the subtle awareness it displays of the genre itself. One sequence that takes place during the performance of an opera, for example, is a straight-out homage to (either version of) Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which an assassin’s bullet is timed to kill a politician at the climax of the piece of music in order to mask the sound of the gunshot. In a similar nod to the genre and its current status, on one occasion Benji takes for granted Hunt’s ability to ‘do the impossible’, a moment where we witness Hunt actually doubting himself and his physical strength – a sly reference to the fact that Cruise/Hunt is (at least in the realm of Hollywood) past his prime, not yet sharing the bill with other ‘Geriaction’ stars like Schwarzenegger or Willis, but certainly heading that way. The most interesting subversion of the genre, however, is the character of Simon Pegg’s Benji. Portrayed as the comic relief in a kind of buddy-cop role, Benji’s status within the franchise has been elevated from lowly IMF technician in MI3 to – what for all intents and purposes could be called – Hunt’s ‘love interest’. Having shared a good proportion of screen time together, the final act of Rogue Nation is built around Hunt’s effort to rescue Benji from the Syndicate. Hunt routinely claims that he can’t leave him behind and must save him. Despite the traditional femme fatale role given to Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, there’s this strange shifting of character stereotypes leaving Pegg to play the damsel in distress whilst Faust is basically sidelined as a character.

Putting to one side the fact that the film’s narrative will collapse like a house of cards under the slightest amount of scrutiny, as well as one or two moments of lacklustre dialogue (a particular monologue given by Alec Baldwin has to be one of the most deplorable pieces of writing in recent years), Rogue Nation does the job one expects it to do. Overall, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is a serviceable action-blockbuster designed to keep its mainstream audience entertained for its two hour running time and it does it well.

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