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August 1, 2015


This is what happens when you refuse to lower expectations.


The Mission: Impossible films hail from a version of Hollywood driven by great purpose and furious passion, a Hollywood that would rather excite an audience with something new than condescend to them with nostalgia. We've talked at length about the franchise (which is entering its third decade of life), and while we'll always argue over which is the best installment, one thing remains clear: each one brings something entirely new to the table. Rogue Nation is no different: It's a brilliant throwback to that old version of Hollywood where heroes were heroes, stunts were done for real, and Tom Cruise was the biggest movie star in the world. 

Picking up where Ghost Protocol left off, the Impossible Mission Force is in hot water. CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is petitioning Congress to have the IMF dismantled and absorbed into an agency that can provide better oversight for Ethan Hunt's shenanigans. Ethan, meanwhile, is busy pursuing The Syndicate, a terrorist cooperative of disavowed operatives from every nation. Mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) has been engineering plane crashes and other mayhem in order to destabilize the world's governments. While side-stepping CIA capture, Ethan and smart guy/hetero life mate Benji (Simon Pegg) try to track down their only lead, Syndicate assassin Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). They later meet up with old pals Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther (Ving Rhames) and start blowing things up good and proper.

The first and most important thing to remember about Rogue Nation is that it's Mission: Impossible FIVE. It doesn't have to be any good. Most franchises that run as long are in the straight-to-video category by this point. Cruise and company could have easily given us a bloated festival of CGI'd lights, absent any intrigue or narrative purpose. They could have given us Jurassic World, a tone-deaf catastrophe that goes out of its way to remind you that the best in the series is long past. But these filmmakers are operating on the wonderful assumption that the Mission: Impossible brand means something. It's a standard to meet, not an asset to exploit.

Scroll back up to the top of this page and you'll see Tom Cruise hanging from the side of an airplane. It's a frame from the opening of the film, in which Ethan has to stop a cargo plane from taking off with some deadly gas or some shit. One would think that involved some green screen trickery or maybe a bit of animation. It didn't. They strapped Tom Cruise to a goddamn airplane. The film opens that way. Remember when Vin Diesel brought down that plane with sports cars in Fast and Furious 6? This is better. Not only that, but it sets an important precedent: If it can be done for real, it is. Director Christopher McQuarrie knows how to show it off, too. If Cruise is holding his breath underwater, he lets it play out in one long take. If Cruise is perilously side-winding on a crotch rocket, he shows us the pavement in front of him to prove he's driving it himself. If Rebecca Fergueson is doing her trademark scissor-legged takedown of a goon, he keeps the shot wide so we see it top to bottom. It's only after we've seen countless computer landscapes blown to bits by cartoon robots that we realize this is what we really want, and that the goal of any good action film should be immersion and participation. We should feel the crashes and explosions, the bones breaking and bullets flying. 

Speaking of McQuarrie (who also wrote the screenplay), he turns in the most deliberately shot and classically edited film in the series. It's easy to think that a director simply has to point the camera at the explosion and that's it, but there's a reason why the action in Age of Ultron was so incomprehensible: there was no sense of geography. The art of editing an action sequence is as important as any other in the film. The action is telling a series of smaller stories, each with their own narrative arcs. The opera house sequence, for example, builds up and pays off in waves that give the audience time to understand and become invested in what they're watching. That's how tension works, people. McQuarrie is interested in the audience feeling something about the spectacle, rather than us just being numbed by it. 

It may be a stretch to consider any of the characters in the Mission: Impossible universe to be people, but Rogue Nation also succeeds because it's a film about relationships. The plot contrasts these friends and the value with which they hold each other against the apathy and cold detachment handed down by their bosses. In fact, the core emotional arc of the film is Ilsa's: she learns the hard way that these superpowers that trained her don't see her as a patriotic human being fighting for king and country, but rather as an expendable commodity to be bartered away when necessary. She and Hunt work together (seriously, she carries a lot of the movie) to prove that compassion and trust between allies are vital components when saving the world. 

That compassion and trust extends to the audience, as well. Rogue Nation is old Hollywood. It proves that we don't need a thousand flying meta-humans picking up cities and throwing them at each other in order to be immersed. Sometimes it's as simple as a pair of knife fighters in a foggy alley or a guy holding his breath for three full minutes. More than anything, we just want to see talented people be good at their jobs. We want to see what they fight for, and why. We want to see them struggle through adversity and eventually succeed. We want to see Tom Cruise strapped to a goddamn airplane. Thankfully, he's willing to oblige. 







Rob writes and podcasts for The Ugly Club. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is in theaters now.




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