Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation starts off on another level. Literally. In the first scene of the film, Tom Cruise runs from the ground and flies through the sky on the side of an airplane. It’s the film’s way of screaming at the audience, “You are in for a fucking crazy ride.” And then, it delivers.
The fifth film in the Mission: Impossible franchise, and the first directed by Oscar-winning writer Christopher McQuarrie, Rogue Nation doesn’t have as solid a story as Ghost Protocol. It doesn’t have the flash of Mission: Impossible III, the slow motion of Mission: Impossible II or novelty of the original Mission: Impossible either.
What Rogue Nation does have are tension and momentum, from beginning to end—and those pretty much outweigh everything else. For two hours, McQuarrie and Cruise give you massive set piece after massive set piece, filled with jaw-dropping stunts and “wow” moments.
Now, to be fair, those set pieces do mask what, for the most part, is nothing more than a serviceable story. In the movie, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is on the hunt for The Syndicate, an ultra secret crime ring that most people don’t think exists. As he digs deeper into the mystery, Hunt is branded a fugitive and his Impossible Mission Force team is disbanded. He then has to take down the Syndicate, get his team back and clear his name. Simple, compact, and maybe slightly underwhelming. But the story is mostly just glue to hold together the best stuff this film has to offer.
In the best action movies, the action serves a purpose, moving the story forward in some way—and each action scene in Rogue Nation actually tells a contained story, but also serves the larger arc of the film. The plane scene sets the tone. An epic opera fight shifts the story focus and character motivations. An underwater scene, which has to be seen to be believed, once again flips character expectations, while also providing a crucial plot point. A car chase, that becomes something much more, reconnects the rest of the team (which includes Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames)—and that’s not even mentioning plenty of smaller spy missions complete with gadgets, suspense, close calls and classic Mission: Impossible masks. Each piece serves a very distinct, but also entertaining, purpose.
If the action is the number one stand-out element in this film, the second major element is actress Rebecca Ferguson. She plays Ilsa, a duplicitous spy at the center of The Syndicate’s plans. We never really know what Ilsa’s motivations and allegiances are, and Ferguson’s performance keeps the audience consistently guessing. Simultaneous with that balancing act, she’s Cruise’s physical equal every step of the way. Without her, Rogue Nation could have just been good. With her, it’s great.
There’s just one minor downside to just how good Ferguson is: She basically over shadows every single other performance in the movie: from Tom Cruise himself, to the new villain played by Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin and all the way to Pegg, Renner and Rhames. Each of those actors does a great job with their role, whether that means being heroic, menacing, funny or annoying. Yet whenever anyone else is on screen, if it’s not about Ferguson or with her, things go from being electric, to just solid. It’s a good thing she’s on screen so much.
What also makes Rogue Nation stand out is how it goes against the mantra of almost every single other blockbuster out there. In most movies, each action scene gets bigger until the finale, which is the biggest yet. Rogue Nation, on the other hand, is almost the opposite. It starts with that huge plane scene, dials things back at bit after that, and maintains a high level of spectacle, until it finally de-crescendos into a small yet satisfying finale. With this film, McQuarrie is just as interested in big explosions as personal connections—so, by the end, we’ve seen so much of the former, it’s time for the latter to take control.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation has a lot working for it. The unique structure, the dynamite, star-making performance of Ferguson and more. But beyond all of that, the memory I’ll keep coming back to with the film is this. No less than three times during the film, I said “Holy shit,” out loud, in a quiet movie theater. I just couldn’t hold it in. What I was seeing on screen was that exciting. And any movie that can do that is worth seeing.
How many fifth films in a franchise have actually been good, let alone a contender for best of the franchise? Not many, but Rogue Nation does just that. It’s proof that a number is just a number, when it comes to film series. What really matters is a passionate, talented filmmaker, a great cast, a desire to please the audience and send them off on a thrill ride. If the fifth film in a franchise can be as good as Rogue Nation, then any movie can be good. This movie restores your faith in what a big budget, summer blockbuster action movie can be.