Crackerjack stuff: Rogue Nation is the best film in the franchise since the original Mission back in 1996. Sleek and tight (despite a 132-minute running time), with level-headed, no-nonsense scripting and direction from Christopher McQuarrie, you won’t find a better summer blockbuster this side of Mad Max.
That’s two in a row for star Tom Cruise, following last year’s dynamite Edge of Tomorrow, and 2013’s Oblivion wasn’t too bad, either. When the movies are good, the personal stuff doesn’t seem to matter, and at age 53 Cruise is firmly re-establishing himself as Hollywood’s top action star.
It helps that, as always, the actor performs his own stunts. Advance featurettes have showcased Cruise strapped to the side of an airplane during takeoff and behind the wheel of a swerving BMW, and knowing the actor is actually there makes these scenes that much more exciting.
Practical stunt work has always been a big part of this franchise, ever since Cruise dangled upside down from that air vent in the first film, one of the greatest sustained action film setpieces ever filmed courtesy of director Brian De Palma.
There’s nothing in Rogue Nation to top that, but the film does have two great action sequences that carry the first 90 minutes of the movie. There’s an old Howard Hawks quote about a movie needing three great scenes and no bad ones to be great, and MI5 is about one scene short of that benchmark.
That airplane sequence is Rogue Nation’s cold open, and it could have been one of those scenes had McQuarrie been able to dedicate more than two minutes to it. Instead, it’s a plot-irrelevant lead-in that’s nevertheless great fun and especially impressive knowing that’s really Cruise hanging off the side of the plane.
After that, there’s no time to waste: the film’s storyline is actually set up during the opening credits, as a mysterious new baddie (played by Sean Harris) traps top IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) inside of his own safehouse vault, and murders a poor agency secretary before his eyes.
Meanwhile, CIA director (Alec Baldwin) battles IMF head Brandt (Jeremy Renner) to shut down the Impossible Missions Force in Washington, using disastrous events from the last movie (including the bombing of the Kremlin) as a basis. This series has never had much continuity, but the last two films have a lot more in common than any of the preceding ones.
In the time it takes for the credits to unfold, the IMF has been effectively dismantled and Hunt is out for blood against the head of the mysterious Syndicate.
Rogue Nation’s first great action sequence takes place at the Vienna Opera House, as Hunt and Benji (Simon Pegg) scan the crowd for the chief villain before catching wind of three assassins who have their sights on Austria’s chancellor. Hunt takes on one of the assassins atop the lights above the stage while Puccini’s Turandot is performed beneath them.
It’s the best scene in the film, and second- or third- best in the franchise after the Langley vault sequence in the original and Brad Bird’s work outside of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa hotel in the last movie.
The film’s next-best sequence – which seems to go on for over half an hour – is an incredibly complex Morocco break-in that involves Hunt holding his breath for over three minutes to replace a security chip that will allow Benji to… well, whatever. And then, seconds after Hunt has been resuscitated, he begins a lengthy and impressively-staged chase, first in a BMW and then a motorcycle.
At this point, Rogue Nation is one scene from greatness. Unfortunately, the film falls just short of that.
McQuarrie’s script is fine – I like how the film ends with an ironic wink, and there’s an atypically merciful element that separates the film from others in this franchise, and the more recent, darker James Bond movies.
But the staging and execution of the film’s climactic scenes lacks the spark and imagination of the rest of the film. It’s like the movie ran out of ideas as it peters to a workmanlike resolution.
Harris – who seems to have been inspired by Eddie Redmayne’s work in Jupiter Ascending – makes for a devious baddie, and Simon McBurney and Tom Hollander have fun playing the UK’s MI5 head and Prime Minister, respectively. Ving Rhames reprises his role as Luther from the rest of the films.
The striking Rebecca Ferguson – who is occasionally a dead ringer for Michelle Monaghan, who played Hunt’s wife in previous films – plays a Syndicate operative that Hunt can trust. Or can he?
Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie won an Oscar for 1995’s The Usual Suspects, but couldn’t get another directing gig following his underrated 2000 debut The Way of the Gun until Cruise tapped him for the also-underrated Jack Reacher a few years back.
His work here, however, should elevate him into the upper echelon of action directors. The fight and chase sequences are exquisitely choreographed, beautifully shot (by Robert Elswit), and carefully edited so that we’re always aware of the events and their consequences.
It might fall short of greatness, but Rogue Nation is still dynamite fun.