One imagines Christopher McQuarrie, screenwriter and director of this fifth instalment of the Mission: Impossible series, sat in his kitchen struggling to come up with that special something that will separate his addition to the franchise out from all the rest. That special set-piece. Sure, Tom’s got some nifty idea about hanging on to a plane at the top of the picture, but he needs something punchy for the middle. It’s traditional. De Palma had that vault heist back in ’96. Bird capriciously attached Ethan Hunt to the tallest building in the world for Ghost Protocol. What could come next?
And while contemplating this tricky question, McQuarrie finds himself staring into his washing machine as it shudders its way through the robotic chore of sudding his whites. “Gee,” McQuarrie thinks to himself, “Imagine what it would be like to be inside a giant washing machine…”
As we’ve come to expect then, the most impossible part of Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation (a film title that’s crying out for a comma, and a film which – by the way – includes zero rogue nations) is a central set piece in which ultra-generic super spy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has to gain access to an intricately safeguarded location to instigate some high-tech espionage. This time round, it’s a massive computer room that’s underwater. A room, by the way, that no one would build. I get nervous leaving a pint of water within a foot of my laptop. For some reason this underwater computer room has a load of robotic arms swishing around, getting in his way, threatening to wind him at every conceivable opportunity. I’m sure they’re busy doing something. Point is, it’s not the only part of the film that reminded me of Sigourney Weaver running through a corridor of choppy crushy things in Galaxy Quest complaining loudly that whoever thought this up should die.
I don’t want Christopher McQuarrie to die. He’s landed a functioning spy caper here that mostly runs by the formula set down long before his arrival in a franchise still struggling to find its own identity. Perhaps it’s the relatively large gaps between instalments or the lack of a consistent helmsman (all five Mission: Impossible films have been directed by different people), but the series still flounders for a unique selling point. Granted, in the last decade or so it’s started to cement a core team (the first couple movies were really just Cruise fulfilling his own dream of playing Bond), but it’s still pitched somewhere in the no man’s land between 007 and Fast & Furious; striving to be as serious as the former while simultaneously playing for the “we are family” campiness of the latter.
There is, however, one great addition to the formula this time around, and that’s the introduction of Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust to the mix. A seemingly renegade agent playing both sides against each another (there are always sides). She keeps sweeping scenes away from the other actors and marks herself out as every bit the match for Cruise’s unbreakable hero. In fact I’d say there’s probably a lot more mileage to be had out of spinning her character off into a new and separate franchise than there is in perpetuating the M:I series.
Cruise is admirably fighting off the ageing process though, looking every bit the action hero here as he ever has, clinging onto planes mid take-off, scampering around the wings in a virtuoso sequence at the opera in Vienna, jumping into aforementioned giant washing machines, snarling a motorbike through a heady chase sequence or blithely surviving a car crash that looks really, really, really painful. He’s still quite obviously up to the task, even if his chosen hero lacks identifiable characteristics. Seemingly gone are the connections to Hunt’s former wife played by Michelle Monaghan in III and with it any semblance of a man behind the mission. Appropriately, perhaps, Hunt is just a shadow, jumping and punching his way through alleyways out to stop this-or-that.
I’d usually have thrown in a paragraph of plot synopsis by now, but it’s largely interchangeable with half a dozen Bond films or even seasons of 24 (what was that about VX nerve gas?). We’re in Licence To Kill territory here with the IMF (no, not that one) disavowed and Ethan Hunt on a personal mission to catch Sean Harris’ whispering bad guy. Elsewhere and also deploying as much whisper as possible is Alec Baldwin’s CIA bigwig Alan Hunley, getting the job done like much of the supporting cast. McQuarrie’s plot is enjoyably sinewy where it needs to be and, as with nearly all M:I films up to this point, it blows its load too early, front-loading the film with its best moments, leaving the last forty minutes tapering in the wind. Things wrap up in London in a this’ll-do sort of manner, credits roll, job done.
Having said that, when Rogue Nation is on form, it’s one of the best of the bunch so far. Everything that happens in Morocco is top-notch action material. Groundbreaking? Not so much. But McQuarrie has you in sturdy hands and delivers what he needs to. Similarly, the near-wordless opera sequence early on is superbly choreographed. You know where everybody is, you know the stakes, and the musical accompaniment adds almost comic gravitas while simultaneously setting the pace for the editing. It’s a treat. And overall, Simon Pegg’s grating comedy sidekick Benji (played and treated by all like the loveable pet that keeps shitting on the carpet) isn’t quite the grind on the film he could’ve been.
This instalment then lands comfortably in the middle of the M:I quality roster. It’s not the eye, ear and intelligence baiting shitfest of John Woo’s second chapter. But neither does it quite hit the series highs of De Palma’s opening salvo or Abrams’ third flick which, let’s face it, was stolen wholesale by Philip Seymour Hoffman. No, Rogue Nation seems happy enough as the kinda good one which will be remembered as “the one with the plane” or “the one with the big washing machine computer room” or, less likely, “the one where Ving Rhames’ character manages to lose someone sitting right in front of him” (seriously Ving, have a word next time; you’re being short-changed).
Oh, and not for nothing, if Ethan Hunt ever needs to interrogate anyone again, all he needs to do is make them sit for two hours and fifteen minutes in row D of Screen 1 at the Odeon in Exeter. Jesus fucking Christ.