Early on in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, a surly CIA director (Alec Baldwin) makes a convincing argument that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has gone insane. How else could one explain the renowned IMF super spy's ridiculous claims about a clandestine group of nefarious and disgraced secret agents known as "The Syndicate" hell bent on destroying law and order? Later, an adoring young operative makes doe eyes at Ethan and tells him, "I've heard stories; they can't all be true."
The idea of Ethan's instability and delusion (and how it relates to his heroic acts) is a fascinating tangent these movies have yet to consider. But the thread gets quickly swept under the rug, because, you know, his suspicions are correct. Too bad, since director Christopher McQuarrie specializes in these kinds of flawed, mentally unsound protagonists living on the edge of chaos.
Known for writing the screenplay to Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects (canonized by bro college students of a certain era), McQuarrie has proven himself a worthy pulp filmmaker in his own right directing the muscular neo-noirs Way of the Gun and Jack Reacher. The latter also stars Cruise in a much more interesting role as a truly rogue investigator who uses violence to reconcile the evil that men do. It's contained, sharp and focused, everything Rogue Nation is not.
One expects any new Mission: Impossible film to be messy knowing the series' standard level of absurdity concerning plot mechanics and relentless action-driven pace. But Rogue Nation seems to be pieced together with sloppy B-roll from its predecessors; see the neon-hued cramped spaces of Brian De Palma's original, the gravity-defying motorcycle chases of John Woo's unfairly derided and nutty sequel, the tactical villainy of J.J. Abrams' overrated third film, and the extreme physical peril of Brad Bird's fourth entry.
McQuarrie manages to put his stamp on a few action scenes, namely the tight sequence of fisticuffs where Ethan and deep cover operative Ilsa Ford (Rebecca Ferguson) face off against muscle-bound Eastern bloc baddies. Punches sting and necks crack, the sound design elevating a normal brawl to a battle between gods. A few shootouts are similarly pummeling; McQuarrie thrives whenever there's gunplay involved. Longer takes stand out as last gasps for some kind of stylistic identity.
Rogue Nation moves along at a fine enough clip, propelled almost entirely by elongated set pieces involving Ethan, Ilsa and fellow IMF colleague Benji (Simon Pegg) trying to break into various high-security places hoping to steal information about The Syndicate and it's figurehead. These scenes inspire a level of tension in the moment (hold your breath during a particularly scary underwater sequence), but drift from memory almost immediately afterward.
The unbelievably flaccid screenplay lacks a true sense of danger or purpose. Ethan's fleeting, mad dog reason for wanting to destroy The Syndicate feels undercooked, as does the motivation behind Sean Harris' worm-like villain, who wants to cripple Western civilization by inciting anarchy through disaster.
Even more concerning is the insertion of comedic interludes as palate cleansers for the kinetic action. Blockbusters have to be everything to everyone these days, another unfortunate reality of our Marvel-ized age. Except the quips and sarcasm stand out like a sore thumb in the Mission: Impossible series, even when you surround the stone cold Cruise with the charming likes of Pegg and Ving Rhames.
Rogue Nation, which opens in a theater near you Friday, July 31, makes for a diverting time only when you consider and make peace with the low stakes of its existence. Take for instance the most diabolically Hitchcockian sequence set in the Vienna Opera house that ends in brutally explosive fashion. This would have been the perfect opportunity for McQuarrie to make a point about the collateral damage of his hero's recklessness. But Ethan and company simply shrug off the global implications of their screw up and keep on trucking.
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