Earlier today, we posted that fantastic video of 1000 people singing the Foo Fighters’ “Learning To Fly”, and someone in the comments posited that the “Foo Fighters are the best big time rockers of my generation,” a sentiment that I heartily agree with. They may not be the best (though they’re damn good) or the most talented (though they’re strong on that front too), but as far as pure rock and roll stars, they likely are the best around right now. And if you want to talk about the best movie stars of our generation, enter Tom Cruise. Cruise may not have the genuine, built in charisma of Dave Grohl and his gang — there’s too much crazy in his offscreen life for that to be possible — but onscreen? It’s unquestionable.
Which brings us to his newest effort, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Goddamn, is this a fun movie. Plot-wise, it’s fairly paint-by-numbers in terms of how the franchise has played itself out — Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his crew (played by Jeremy Renner as the bureaucratic Brandt, Simon Pegg as nerdy hacker Benji, and Ving Rhames as the stoic genius Luther) are in a quest for a nefarious bad guy and his crew, for silly, Machiavellian reasons, their super duper secret agent group, the ludicrously named Impossible Mission Force (IMF) is shut down and Hunt is driven underground. It’s up to him and a select group of his companions to find the truth, expose the secrets, save the day. The bad guy, played with raspy menace by Sean Harris, is suitably grim and devious, and surrounded by a group of equally grim goons, and the good guys are conflicted but eventually, through derring-do and over-the-top action, the day is saved.
Welcome to every Mission: Impossible movie, ever. They have all been variations of that theme, going all the way back to Brian De Palma’s original 1996 adaptation of the television series. Since then, the reins have been handed to a bevy of talented directors — John Woo (the weakest entry), Brad Bird, J.J. Abrams, and now, Usual Suspects scribe and Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie (who also wrote the screenplay). The thing is, it’s been an immensely successful theme, thanks to solid storytelling, terrific action sequences (which focus more on suspense and hand-to-hand combat than gunplay), an always-enjoyable supporting cast, and Tom fucking Cruise.
And thankfully, all of that is present once again in Rogue Nation. It’s a breathlessly paced, action-packed, just-complicated-enough film that is almost excactly what you want out of a summer blockbuster. It’s smart, but not particularly complex, funny without being goofy, and exciting without causing the kind of editing-inducing headaches that so many film’s have. McQuarrie directs the film with a deft, capable hand, letting the charisma of his stars and the lushness of his sets do much of the heavy lifting, and then peppering the film with naturalistic action sequences that, while preposterous, feel CGI-free and real (thanks in no small part to Cruise’s insistence in doing much of his own death-defying stunt-work). There’s a bonkers scene where a half-drugged Hunt is barreling through narrow streets that culminates in an absolutely insane car crash that legitimately felt like “Oh, shit, they just killed two movie stars.”
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s true highlight — while Cruise is in full action star mode and once more proves that while he’s far from a perfect actor, he’s perfect for this particular role, and while his supporting cast are all quite good (even if Renner’s smug Brandt is a bit wearisome after a while), it’s Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, playing rogue British agent Ilsa Faust (seriously, with that name?) who is the best part of the movie. It’s partially due to a (gasp) terrifically written, complex, and interesting female character. Faust has the most complicated and mysterious motivations in the film, and one is never quite sure where she’s headed. She oozes sexuality in a confident, unapologetic sense, but she’s also a ruthless, relentless badass throughout the film. Her fight scenes are breathless, vicious affairs, and at the film’s climax, she’s the one with the most satisfying brawl — against a man, another way the McQuarrie deviates from the standard narrative. And while there is clearly a chemistry between her and Hunt, the film never takes the lazy romantic option, nor does it reduce her to a damsel in distress role — she saves Hunt’s ass as often as he saves hers.
There’s not much that’s terribly new in Rogue Nation, but McQuarrie is effective at putting new, innovative spins on some not-so-new ideas. As an added bonus, the film is filled with callbacks to the older films — motorcycle chases, ridiculously complicated break-ins, harrowing foot chases through narrow streets, plane hijinks and nutty disguises — all thrown in to make the film both a continuation as well as a sort of love letter to the series. Is the film perfect? No, but it does so much with near perfection that it doesn’t matter. Does it recycle some material? Yes, but it feels more like homage than anything else. What matters is that McQuarrie crafted a strong, smart action film that emphasizes intrigue and urgency over explosions and carnage, using a well-balanced cast that clearly works well together. Much like the Foo Fighters, it’s not the best ever, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the best right now.