Early in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) — though shirtless, barefoot and bound at the wrists — narrowly escapes death at the hands of a bad guy known as the Bone Doctor. Once properly clad, Ethan makes a panicked call to his partners back home … in front of a sign that advertises an “unhurried massage.”
There are plenty of connotations, lurid or otherwise, to that adjective … especially when applied to something as hands-on as a massage. Then again, “unhurried massage” is pretty much what the five Mission movies doled out over the last 20 years are all about — a skillful ratio of pressure to relaxation … and the professional knowledge of when, where and for just how long to really work you over. Most of all, an “unhurried massage” is something that caters to you. Not the clock. Not a job. Just you. And catering exclusively to you? Well, that’s what Tom Cruise is all about, too.
Cruise’s pathological passion for pleasing people usually comes off as creepy, needy and enervating … when plebes like us try it. Emboldened by the resources given to someone who’s still one of the world’s biggest stars nearly four decades into his career, Cruise’s pursuit of perfection in the Mission films feels energetic, sensational, awesome … even in the most ridiculous one (i.e., No. 2).
When Alec Baldwin’s character here describes Hunt as “the living manifestation of destiny and his mission is you,” you laugh not at the line’s outlandishness but that its truth sticks as strongly to the man playing Hunt. (That Baldwin bailed on his own 1990s Paramount Pictures franchise while Cruise stuck with his longer than anyone expected adds a layer of delicious ideological irony.)
You expect a franchise’s fifth movie to raise a fist to the awesomeness of being The Guy, and Rogue Nation throws it skyward with gusto. Even sans the circus showman hype with which he always hawks it, Cruise’s jones for derring-do stunts remains impressive. He contorts his body just oddly enough that it can’t possibly be anyone but him. No stuntman so quickly sacrifices grace for authenticity.
Nearly every action sequence matches the pedigree you expect from this series. Eschewing the last three films’ vibrant, vivid colors, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie hearkens back to the muted cool of Brian De Palma’s superb original. A motorcycle chase in Morocco is simultaneously low-slung and high-strung. Combatants on a Viennese opera catwalk whale on each other discreetly so as not to upset folks who paid big bucks for Puccini. The usual centerpiece of an outlandishly improbable theft takes a page from Gravity, with a quiet calm that quickly slides from clever to chilling. And all of this comes after a well-publicized prologue in which Cruise hangs from a goddamn plane as it takes off. When co-star Simon Pegg pauses to marvel at that, it’s not acting. It’s just plain awe.
Rogue Nation even avoids pretentiousness when employing opera and poetry to evoke the high of being The Guy. A scene during a production of Turandot hinges on the iconic “Nessun dorma,” an aria in which cocky, confident Prince Calaf asserts victory will most certainly be his. And third-act references to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If—”only go to show just how long artists have fawned over the sort of hero Cruise loves to play.
But what really keeps this fifth installment as fresh as it is furiously entertaining is McQuarrie’s examination of how exhausting it must also feel to always be The Guy … whether that means super-spy Hunt or superstar Cruise. Midway through the film, Ethan is given three choices — full surrender with permanent consequences, pyrrhic victory with nagging guilt … or, quite simply, an escape (joined by one of the most beautiful women you’ll ever see, but more on her later). Hunt’s weary resignation, and a possible exit strategy from it, is oh-so-subtle, but Cruise sells it. It also doubles as what is now an inevitable question: How much more of these will Cruise really do?
The “Rogue Nation” of the title refers specifically to the Syndicate, a sort of bizarro bad-guy version of Hunt’s do-gooder Impossible Mission Force. Equally skilled as the IMF, mysteriously funded and led by a Brit (Sean Harris) who too closely resembles Dave Foley from “The Kids in the Hall” to be taken all that seriously, the Syndicate has chosen to foment global chaos rather than foil it.
After two movies in which Hunt largely went it alone, the last three films have wisely fleshed out a focus on team. But here, amid all the duplicities and disavowals, simple friendship becomes a rogue nation unto itself — a cause of greater moral clarity than any state-sanctioned spycraft could ever hope to serve. Like John le Carré at light-speed, Rogue Nation quite thoughtfully considers just how lonely wolves like Hunt that run so far ahead of their pack must feel after the adrenaline dies off.
But maybe Hunt doesn’t need to be alone after all. That’s the eventual pitch from Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a mysterious woman who is, depending on the situation, either Hunt’s counterpart or his competition. Yes, Hunt flirted with domestic bliss in No. 3, but they wriggled out of that corner in No. 4. And there ain’t nothing domesticated about Ilsa. Ferguson has Ingrid Bergman’s intoxicating gaze, Anjelica Huston’s vulpine sexuality, Gina Carano’s brute force and a holy-moly energy that is entirely hers and unlike anything you’ve seen in this series thus far. (And with a name like Ilsa, you know the movie is headed to Casablanca.)
More viper than Vesper, Ilsa is a from-nowhere force to be reckoned with, and Ferguson delivers the star-making performance of the summer. Together, she and Cruise create more cordial, flirtatious sparks on the sort of warrior connection forged between Max and Furiosa earlier this summer.
Ultimately, Rogue Nation is a very, very slight notch behind its most immediate predecessor, Ghost Protocol. You occasionally sense McQuarrie, an Oscar-winning writer for The Usual Suspects on his biggest movie to date, caving to rather commonplace conventions of the spy game. Outside of a few droll quips, Jeremy Renner mainly enjoys the cash taped to water buckets he’s carrying for this series. And Rogue Nation’s climactic action sequence is the series’ lamest so far, an anonymous expenditure of bullets rather than brain or brawn.
Minor quibbles, though, as at least McQuarrie (sharing a story credit with Drew Pearce) has written a fully fleshed-out movie instead of merely connecting together action sequences, strong as they may have been in the past. Too often, the Mission movies overcompensate and lose themselves in a thick jumble of needless gobbledygook to make it seem like there’s more that matters beyond getting the bad guy. McQuarrie is more about clean lines and concise punch. It’s also the funniest installment yet, as McQuarrie jumps between witty finesse (a sly joke about Cruise’s height literally puts him on equal footing with Ferguson) and brutally punctuated punchlines, as if he’s using an ice pick to stab periods on the page. Moreover, after writing four movies for the man, McQuarrie knows all the right moves, existentially speaking, to make for Cruise.
Ultimately, Rogue Nation rests on this reassurance: When you hit the occasional moment that you absolutely, positively cannot be The Guy, friends will have your back by being all the metaphorical guys they need to be. After this, you sense even if Cruise has to lean more heavily on co-stars for another 20 years of Mission movies, by hook or by crook he’ll will them into unhurried excellence.