Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation review: high on style, low on substance

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Film Review: ‘Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation’.

The theme that runs like a quick-burning fuse through “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” is the tricky relationship between inevitability and chance — or luck, rather, as signaled by the brief appearance of a rabbit’s foot in one of Tom Cruise’s more brutal action sequences. First appearing as a TV show on CBS in 1966, Mission: Impossible ran for 7 seasons and introduced the Impossible Mission Force – a team of secret agents tasked with taking on missions which the government couldn’t.Simon Pegg has said that his Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation co-star Tom Cruise is “just a regular dude” and spoke about how much fun they had on the set of the latest instalment of the action franchise.

Together with its iconic theme tune, the show created the self-destructing mission briefings and intro sequence with clips from the upcoming episode, something director Brad Bird borrowed for 2011’s Ghost Protocol. Speaking to TEN and other press, the actor revealed that the closer you get to the worldwide superstar, “the more normal he is” explaining: “His public image is so complex and intricate and mysterious and there are assumptions and myths about him…

The result is an existential quandary that writer-director Christopher McQuarrie negotiates with characteristic cleverness and a sly respect for the sheer durability of genre; at once questioning and reaffirming the pleasures of cinematic espionage, this is the rare sequel that leaves its franchise feeling not exhausted but surprisingly resurgent at 19 years and counting. But before all that, in the 90s, movie superstar Tom Cruise started to look into a big screen revival of one of his favourite TV shows, Mission: Impossible. Despite early reports of soft tracking, this late-summer Paramount release should meet with a solid embrace worldwide, and could demonstrate considerable B.O. resilience through the doldrums of August. It’s worth recalling that the Brad Bird-directed “Ghost Protocol” overcame a slow start to become the series’ highest-grossing entry (nearly $700 million worldwide), suggesting there was still plenty of life in “Mission: Impossible” — and in Tom Cruise’s career, whatever personal embarrassments and professional setbacks he may have suffered along the way. Cruise tasked a unique spread of directors to bring the world of the IMF to life, starting with thriller-expert Brian dePalma for 1996’s Mission: Impossible and moving onto Hong Kong action maestro John Woo for 2000’s Mission: Impossible II – which I’ve always had a real fondness for.

One of the most suspenseful episodes takes the audience to the city’s ornate opera house where Cruise, as Ethan Hunt, plays a deadly game of hide-and-go seek members of The Syndicate, a dark force bent on destroying the earth — and while they’re at it, killing Austria’s chancellor. Then I sat in the back when the door opens, which was fun because when you’re in an aeroplane and a door opens it’s quite weird, but all the time he’s on the outside just doing this crazy stunt and I’m just thinking ‘I’m really glad that’s not me!’ “He sets himself these goals and they’re all about making sure the audience knows it’s him, that it’s not some stuntman, it’s not CG. After a few lackluster recent vehicles (“Jack Reacher,” “Oblivion”) and one terrific, underappreciated thriller (“Edge of Tomorrow”), it’s clearer than ever that Ethan Hunt is not just one of Cruise’s signature roles, but also a commercial oasis to which he can reliably return in between riskier attempts to extend his personal brand. That much is clear from a set piece that has already figured heavily into Paramount’s marketing campaign, and which is wisely dispensed with in the opening scene: Bent on retrieving a cache of nerve-gas missiles from a band of Chechen separatist fighters, Ethan leaps onto a military cargo plane mid-takeoff and hangs on for dear life as terra firma recedes behind him — an astounding piece of airborne staging that Cruise, with his distaste for green-screen effects and his fondness for performing his own stunts, pulls off in typically sweat-free fashion. Cruise has a gift for spotting talent, with each film doing huge numbers at the box office and the entire franchise already earning more than $2 billion dollars worldwide.

It all turns out well in the end, both in the film and for Ferguson who says she has grown through the experience. “It’s been such a ride, when it comes to challenging yourself, physically working alongside Tom Cruise,” she said. The sequence is at once a tasty appetizer and a total red herring, and “Rogue Nation” swiftly gets down to business by putting Ethan and his fellow operatives out of commission. Ferguson, who trained intensely for weeks for the physicality she displayed in the film’s fighting scenes, called the experience “exhausting, exhilarating and … intoxicating,” adding: “Now I’m sort of decommissioning, realizing what actually has happened.” McQuarrie said Pegg was “able to really invest the script with a sense of impossibility and adventure — but also with character and things that made the characters more relatable and more real. Citing the destruction of the Kremlin and other extensive property damage from “Ghost Protocol,” brash CIA boss Alan Huntley (Alec Baldwin) succeeds in dismantling the IMF and absorbing it into the Agency — a move that effectively paralyzes two of Ethan’s old pals, top analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and tech genius Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and proves serious enough to bring Ethan’s trustiest ally, Luther Stickell (an underused Ving Rhames), back in from the cold. He’s best known as the Oscar-winning writer of 1995’s The Usual Suspects but has formed a close relationship with Tom Cruise in recent years, working on the script for Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow and directing the action adaptation Jack Reacher.

Still, those guys are doing relatively well compared with Ethan himself, who barely makes it through the opening credits before he’s accosted in London, tied up and repeatedly pummeled by a chrome-domed torture specialist called the Bone Doctor (Jens Hulten). Wearing contact lenses to protect his eyes from specks of debris, Cruise hangs on the Airbus, scrapes his knee on the asphalt in a breathtaking motorcycle chase and holds his breath for a full six minutes under water as he battles — and ultimately destroys — The Syndicate. It’s the work of a wide-ranging shadow organization known simply as the Syndicate (the “rogue nation” of the title), which has been setting off destabilizing waves of violence, civil unrest and catastrophe across the globe, some of which — far-flung industrial accidents, jetliners vanishing into thin air — have deliberately uncomfortable real-world echoes.

Ethan’s mission, which he has no choice but to accept, is to take down this sinister group, which will require him to team up with the tellingly named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a skilled but relatively untested British intelligence agent who has succeeded in infiltrating the Syndicate. (For all the film’s rampant globe-trotting, its casting choices and frequent London stopovers give it a markedly Blighty flavor.) In classic spy-thriller fashion, it’s never entirely clear whether Ilsa is friend or femme fatale — especially after she and Ethan cross paths with a few well-positioned snipers at the Vienna State Opera, where a lavish performance of “Turandot” serves as both backdrop and modus operandi for an up-in-the-rafters assassination attempt. The curtain comes crashing violently down on that episode, but the movie’s second major action sequence is a marvel of precise execution and quietly fraught suspense, forcing Ethan to swim his way into a highly pressurized underwater cavern in order to lay hands on a weapon that could make or break the Syndicate. It’s a remarkably taut bit of business (shot on the large-format Alexa 65 6k digital camera), literally breathless in its intensity, yet executed with the sort of deftness and economy may remind you of Ethan’s early reference to the great jazz drummer Shadow Wilson and his famously “light touch.” Even when the characters are diving into giant water turbines or ripping up the streets of Morocco on motorcycles, that intricate, improvisatory lightness is a quality that McQuarrie’s film has in spades.

McQuarrie introduced the scenes with some wit and a few caveats – it’s been just a month since the shoot ended so the music was temporary, the effects weren’t finished and all the elements were a little rough. While the “Mission: Impossible” movies have employed a different helmer with each new installment, this is, notably, the first one to be directed and solely written by the same filmmaker — which may explain why, even at a pacey, slightly trimmable 131 minutes, “Rogue Nation” feels like the most dramatically sustained and conceptually unified picture in the series. To be sure, McQuarrie isn’t as flamboyant a stylist as his predecessors Brian De Palma and John Woo, and although it shares with “Ghost Protocol” the same superb cinematographer (Robert Elswit), the new film has an altogether darker, more workmanlike palette, with little of the previous film’s eye-tickling compositional flair. (And whereas “Ghost Protocol” boasted 27 staggering minutes of footage shot on Imax cameras, the image stays strictly widescreen in “Rogue Nation,” gaining relatively little from the giant-screen format in which it was screened for review.) But whatever the filmmaking may lack in visual or visceral impact, McQuarrie (whose past collaborations with Cruise include directing “Jack Reacher” and scripting “Edge of Tomorrow”) more than compensates on the written front; his screenplay (based on a story conceived with Drew Pearce) achieves an admirable complexity without sacrificing coherence in the process.

On the face of it, “Rogue Nation” is another patchwork of Hitchcockian tropes and James Bondian cliches, as familiar as the recurring strains of Lalo Schifrin’s classic musical theme: Carefully encrypted messages are transmitted, bank-account numbers are copied and deleted, and high-tech explosives are armed and disarmed. Behind the Syndicate lurks a calculating uber-villain (played with understated menace by the protean Sean Harris) deluded enough to confuse mass annihilation with salvation, and even after he’s defeated, the film acknowledges, there will be many others like him waiting in the wings.

Everyone is wearing a mask, and not just of the latex variety: As Ethan and Ilsa’s pointed conversations remind us, these agents are professional con artists who must decide anew each day whether they owe their highest allegiance to their cause, their employers, their friends in the field, or the civilians who are always at risk of becoming collateral damage. A “Mission: Impossible” movie will admittedly never be mistaken for John le Carre, even if this one does feature the marvelous Simon McBurney (a veteran of 2011’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) as a high-ranking official whose connections within the British intelligence community run treacherously deep. Hunt isn’t sure what to make of her at first, as she chats in Swedish to a hulking henchman, and his confusion continues when she slips off her stilettos and starts to beat the living hell out of a group of supposed allies in the room. And so the characters’ sense of defeat becomes a metaphor for the essentially formulaic nature of the action-thriller, calling into question the viability of a genre of which we’ve already seen countless iterations and will certainly see countless more. Whatever combination of stunt work and digital trickery was involved (very little, if reports are to be believed), Cruise remains as deft a physical performer as ever, and projects nary a shred of self-consciousness or vanity; he is, no less than Ethan Hunt himself, an incorrigible daredevil and a consummate professional.

Ferguson, a Swedish actress best known for TV productions like “The Red Tent” and “The White Queen,” brings a strong, engaging if not particularly enigmatic presence to a series whose female operatives have never been its strong suit; her iffy chemistry with Cruise is kept further at bay by a story that, aside from some occupationally mandated toplessness, remains strictly within PG-13 boundaries. When the dust settles, Cruise is still trying to get to grips with what Ferguson is after, and that seems to be a recurring element throughout Rogue Nation. Baldwin’s blustering, antagonistic CGI man lends the proceedings a welcome punch, while Pegg, previously seen in “Ghost Protocol” as a comic-relief figure with a full arsenal of malfunctioning gadgets, comes fully into his own here as an indispensable and uniquely courageous member of Ethan’s team. Renner and Rhames are rather sidelined by comparison, though they get considerably more screen time than Zhang Jinchu, whose prominently billed, blink-and-you-miss-it performance as a CIA underling feels like a sop to the film’s Asia-based investors, China Movie Channel and Alibaba Pictures Group.

We’ll have to wait a few months to find out what that’s all about but right now it’s time to chase after Ferguson who is escaping on a motorcycle. She definitely has something everyone is after, but the guys on bikes also seem pretty intent on putting her to death, with plenty of automatic weapons fire. Cruise puts his car and himself in harm’s way to keep the bullets of her back, careening down incredibly narrow passages and even using a spiralling car to take out multiple opponents, in a scene you might remember from the trailer. Camera (Deluxe color, Arri Alexa digital, Panavision widescreen, Imax), Robert Elswit; editor, Eddie Hamilton; music, Joe Kraemer; production designer, James Bissell; supervising art director, Paul Inglis; art directors, Andrew Bennett, Stephen Carter, Amanda Dazely, Matt Gray, Ben Munro, Helen Xenopoulos; set decorator, John Bush; costume designer, Joanna Johnston; sound (Dolby Atmos), Chris Munro; supervising sound editor, James Mather; re-recording mixers, Mike Prestwood Smith, Gilbert Lake; special effects coordinator, Dominic Tuohy; visual effects producer, Maricel Pagulayan; visual effects supervisor, Ken Hahn; visual effects, Double Negative; stunt coordinator, Wade Eastwood; associate producers, Thomas Hayslip, Helen Medrano, Pagulayan; assistant directors, Toby Hefferman, Tommy Gormley; second unit director, Gregg Smrz; second unit camera, Jonathan Taylor; underwater camera, Peter Romano; casting, Mindy Marin, Lucinda Syson.

Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Zhang Jingchu, Tom Hollander, Jens Hulten, Alec Baldwin. (English, German dialogue) This scene ends with the car flying backwards and launching into the air, a huge car stunt that looks very scary indeed and also earns a few more laughs from Pegg’s reaction. And then there’s the action, which is more couched in realism than many similar films and that’s mostly down to the focus on extensive practical stunts.

By the time we see this kind of film in the cinema, it’s been polished through post-production to an incredible sheen, perfect for projection onto the incredible IMAX screen. And there were also a few shots with camera car mounts visible, a reminder that each and every shot in this sequence had to be set up and captured and repeated, sometimes for a scant second of screen time.

With the energy and experience of Tom Cruise and the writing and directing skills of Christopher McQuarrie, I’m confident that Rogue Nation will be another highly entertaining entry in this action-packed series. I also got the chance to hear from McQuarrie on the day and spoke to stars Simon Pegg and Rebecca Ferguson – stay tuned for those interviews ahead of the release of the film.

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