After five films, the Mission: Impossible franchise knows itself. It knows protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), it knows the plot beats, it knows the gadgets, and if it has a smart writer and director, it knows how to bring everything together for an exciting action blockbuster. Brad Bird set a high bar with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has met it with his sequel, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, a movie that has the thrills and humor we’ve come to expect from this series but with a personality all its own thanks to hard-hitting action, clever set pieces, a deeper examination of its hero, and a breakthrough performance from Rebecca Ferguson.
Picking up where Ghost Protocol left off, Ethan Hunt is busy tracking down The Syndicate, a shadowy organization that has been committing a string of terrorist attacks across the globe under the direction of a mysterious figure (Sean Harris). However, the IMF has still been dissolved under Ghost Protocol, and CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) wants to absorb the IMF, which he believes has had too much free reign. Hunley also believes that Hunt is playing “arsonist and fireman”, and that the Syndicate is a smokescreen for Hunt to play hero to his own attacks. This puts Hunt on the run from the government yet again, and the only way to clear his name is to bring down the Syndicate. Disconnected from his team, his only ally is Syndicate Agent Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), who may be trying to help him or perhaps lead him into a trap.
Ghost Protocol felt like a soft reboot for the series by repositioning the series to be more team-oriented and place a heavier emphasis on the humor. Rogue Nation builds on Ghotocol by reframing that mission’s success against Ethan by deeming it “luck”, which means he’s a gambler. And that’s not an unfair assessment. Ethan may be a human Swiss army knife who can take on any mission, but he also puts the entire fate of the world on his shoulders time and time again. McQuarrie doesn’t go so far as to try and deconstruct the action hero or reinvent the Mission: Impossible franchise, but he does ask us to question Ethan, which offers a welcome bit of perspective for the character.
The movie also provides a bit of a co-lead with Faust. While we’re wondering if Ethan’s such a good guy for gambling with the fate of the world, the movie constantly keeps us guessing about whether or not Faust is friend or foe. Ferguson is instantly and constantly beguiling. If Hollywood still made noirs, she would be at the top of the list to play a femme fatale. She looks like she stepped out of the 1940s, and completely seduces the audience with her total confidence and commitment to the character’s intrigue. What’s more encouraging is that rather than try to shoehorn in a romance between Faust and Hunt, McQuarrie is more interested in them as agents who have been betrayed by the people they trusted, and now they’re both trying to figure out how to do the “right thing.”
Of course, it’s all still couched in the standard elements we’ve come to expect from the Mission: Impossible franchise. There’s still a heist, the asshole superior who thinks Hunt is a villain, a perfunctory bad guy (Harris makes the character interesting through sheer allure and creepiness rather than any creed or noteworthy action), and an exciting chase, but it all feels fresh thanks to McQuarrie’s unique approach to the material. While Ghost Protocol realigned the series, Rogue Nation comes across as both classic and new, especially when it comes to a heist that involves getting information from a computer that’s behind multiple layers of security. However, bringing in characters like Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Faust shakes things up and offers an exciting new dynamic along with the spectacularly crafted action scenes.
While Cruise hanging off the side of an airplane is an amazing stunt, McQuarrie’s approach to action is felt more in the hard-hitting chases and fights. The stunts are tactile and you jump at every brutal punch, shot, and crash. However, the director is still graceful enough to let the heist play out wonderfully, and we never lose our sense of geography during an exhilarating motorcycle chase. That’s not to mention a wonderfully paced scene that takes place during an opera and recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the most fun I’ve had at the movies this summer since Mad Max: Fury Road, and that’s not too surprising considering their similarities. They both show that the long-running franchises have plenty of life left in them, they introduce strong, compelling female co-leads, good humor, and ridiculous action. Rogue Nation is an absolute blast, and I can’t wait to accept this mission again.