I like to think that I have some very unique taste in film but truthfully my opinions match with the popular critical consensus more often than not. More often than not when I depart with popular consensus it has more to do with the degree of ire or respect that’s being thrown at a film rather than the actual verdict. In recent memory one of the most extreme examples of this was the 2011 movie Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol. This was a movie I would say I liked even though I didn’t particularly respect it and thought it could have been a lot better. It was a movie with three really good scenes but very little else going for it, it was almost insulting how little work was put into making it into a narrative that was worth a damn. I also wasn’t too fond of how little director Brad Bird was able to bring a distinctive style to the film that would make it stand out as much as previous filmmakers like Brian De Palma and John Woo had. While the James Bond series has built its reputation on sticking to a traditional formula, the Mission: Impossible movies are supposed to do the opposite and take a very distinct style with each installment. And yet, somehow we’ve reached a point where the Bond series is contantly pissing me off by departing from conventions just as the Mission: Impossible series has decided to start sticking to a formula that works. However, I’m not such a zealot that I’ll dismiss a film simply for not sticking to a set of rules that may or may not only exist in my imagination, and with that in mind I went to the latest Mission: Impossible.
While it was never entirely clear how much continuity there was supposed to be between the early films in the series, this installment is very decidedly meant to be a continuation of the events of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Many of the players from that film return but in slightly different roles. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is still a daredevil spy who finds himself doing insane things like climbing on a plane as it takes off, but William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) seems to have taken more of an administrative role and is introduced to the film during a congressional hearing where he’s sparring with CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who has grave concerns about the way the IMF functions. Brandt fights the good fight, but ultimately the IMF is shut down and its agents are folded into the CIA, all of the agents except for Ethan Hunt, who is in the middle of the hunt for a web of spies called “The Syndicate” that he believes are responsible for a number of world disasters. Hunley doesn’t believe the Syndicate exists so when the IMF disbands Hunt goes rogue in order to continue hunting them down all over the world.
As stated earlier, this series was initially defined by its radical stylistic shifts from film to film. The numbered installments were directed by Brian De Palma (who opted to make a slick movie focused on suspense and spy intrigue), John Woo (who was trying to make an intense melodramatic action movie), and J.J. Abrams (who brought a snarky post-modern sensibility to the series). The next film, Ghost Protocol, was different in that Brad Bird was neither a veteran stylist nor was he working on the screenplay and bringing a unique voice to the film in that way. He just kind of seemed like a jobber and while you could vaguely see him bring something to the table in his shot compositions, he mostly just seemed like a slightly less lens flare and film grain enthused version of Abrams. This latest installment is directed by Christopher McQuarrie who is probably the most curious choice to date. He isn’t an experienced action-auteur like De Palma and Woo and he also isn’t a young turn trying to break into features like Abrams or Bird. Rather he’s a man primarily known as a screenwriter and frequent Bryan Signer collaborator who seems to have struck a rapport with Tom Cruise while writing Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow and directing Jack Reacher.
In other words, he’s the safest choice yet and the least likely person to shake up the series in the way that new directors are supposed to. That was my fear anyway and that fear mostly seems to have panned out. Put bluntly, McQuarrie just isn’t an auteur. His 2000 directorial debut Way of the Gun was a Tarantino ripoff that was largely indistinguishable from the likes of The Boondock Saints and while many of his screenplays have been turned into serviceable Hollywood thrillers there isn’t really any kind of stamp linking his work. It’s not all bad though because the guy is certainly a professional and he apparently does know how to shoot a pretty good action scene. Here he doesn’t indulge in the same grandiosity that Brad Bird aspired to, but that probably suits the material better in a number of ways and the film has a certain degree of energy that some previous installments have lacked.
In fact, the movie actually borrows from some of the better elements of all the previous installments of the series. It borrows the teamwork aesthetic from Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol and brings back a lot of the cast from that film like Jeremy Renner and continues to expand Simon Pegg’s role as Hunt’s sidekick. From Mission: Impossible III is borrows a certain comedic lightness, which is probably something the last installment borrowed as well. Like Mission: Impossible 2 the film isn’t afraid to engage in some gunplay and it also has a really big motorcycle chase at its center. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this is the first installment of the series since the original Mission: Impossible to take its spycraft even remotely serious. I don’t want to oversell this point because the movie still isn’t remotely realistic and is generally devoid of substance but it does embrace its roots as an adaptation of a Cold War era TV show and does indulge in some spy vs. spy subterfuge and double-crossing.
The story certainly isn’t original. In fact it’s the second (maybe even third) straight installment to recycle the plot of having Hunt and his team go “rogue” and try to solve a world calamity without the help of the IMF. Honestly, I’m not sure why they keep going back to this well, especially given that they never seem to stick to it and keep giving these agents cool expensive looking spy equipment whenever it’s convenient for the script. At its heart, like most Mission: Impossible movies this plot only exists to string together action scene, but I did appreciate that it actually tried to give the plot a few twist and turns than the almost insultingly simplistic Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol. The film does, however, share a notable weakness with that film in the form of a rather bland villain. That character, a Blofeld like leader of an evil spy ring, is at least written more interestingly than the dude from the last movie, but actor Sean Harris never really gives him the wicked menace that he needed.
Alright, time to stop burying the lead. Action scenes. This movie has some and they’re pretty good. The film’s opening scene, in which Hunt is stuck on top of a plane as it begins to take off plays a pretty big part in the film’s advertising, is actually a bit of a disappointment. The film cuts away right at the big money shot where Hunt is supposed to jump on the plane’s wing, and the whole sequence is actually pretty short and ends on a bit of an anti-climax. The movie makes up for it though with a cool cloak and dagger scene in an opera house, a key underwater stunt, and especially with its big mid-film motorcycle chase, which is really exciting and is clearly the film’s peak. The motorcycle chase is actually almost too good in a way because it sort of upstages the film’s actual climax, which proves to be one of the film’s most understated sequences.
My ultimate feelings about Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation are… kind of complicated. I spent a decent amount of this review talking about the various ways that the film works within the patterns of the series but I don’t want to give the impression that all that played a huge role in my ultimate verdict on the film. I find that stuff interesting, but this isn’t the James Bond series, the sanctity of the series ultimately isn’t that important to me. What is important is that this is a very well executed and entertaining summer blockbuster, albeit a particularly inconsequential one. It’s breezy entertainment that’s meant to be forgotten pretty quickly after you’ve left the theater. It’s basically a Fast & Furious movie but without the youth culture trappings and with fewer speeches about “family.” But there’s nothing wrong with that when it’s good at what it’s trying to do, and on a whole this might be the best installment of the series since the original.
***1/2 out of Four