'Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation': Tom Cruise, the last action hero
There are two impossible missions in the latest Mission: Impossible. The first involves Chechen terrorists, political assassinations, the Vienna Opera House, and a car that unlocks when the user places his hand on the driver's side window (Detroit, get on that). The other impossible mission, one that is not only accepted and completed, but conquered and victoriously ground into dust, is proving that 53-year old Tom Cruise is still an action star.
As Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation demonstrates with cruel ease, Cruise isn't just an action hero. In the post-movie star age, he is, with apologies to a certain Austrian bodybuilder whose drawing power is all but terminated, the last action hero. What makes him thus is not just his supreme confidence, compact good looks, and million dollar smile. The camera has fallen head over heels for plenty of those types. It's his palpable, straight arrow, uniquely American sense of determination, both physical and mental.
Tom Cruise doesn't just star in a movie. He gives birth to it in the back of a cab, panting, sweating, yelling, and heaving, doing it the hard way until the job gets done.
Tom Cruise: Better than CGI
In the James Bond-like opening of Rogue Nation, Cruise, once again playing IMF leader Ethan Hunt, hangs on to the wing of an ascending cargo plane filled with chemical weapons. We see it's really him, the actual Tom Cruise Mapother IV, holding on for dear life and not a three-time Oscar nominated movie star standing on a soundstage in front of a wind machine. Later, his hands are strapped to a pole and he escapes by performing what looks like upside down ab crunches, hoisting himself up, inch by inch.
The guy is his own special effect, a superhero without any unnecessary CGI enhancements. All the digital wizardry in the world cannot replicate such verisimilitude, and to not appreciate the difference is to mourn for a moviegoing culture that doesn't care if its stunts come wholly delivered from a North Hollywood visual effects house where anonymous compositors push buttons and quaff Diet Cokes or someone like Cruise, who's willing to risk his life, minus some wire removal, for our visual delectation.
Movie star and savvy producer
And none of his stunts here, or in the previous M:I sequel, Ghost Protocol, where he dangled off the side of the world's tallest building, are the work of a fading superstar desperate to prove his ongoing worth. He does it because he's Tom Cruise, dammit, and this is why he's a movie star.
Cruise has also been a producer on all five M:I films and he's wisely insisted on a new director every time, each one adding their own moves to the same winning playbook. After tapping animation genius Brad Bird (The Incredibles) for the thoroughly satisfying Ghost Protocol, here Cruise hands the reigns to his Jack Reacher director, Christopher McQuarrie, the least distinctive, most workmanlike helmer of the five M:I movies.
The Oscar winning writer of The Usual Suspects keeps the quality of the series moving ever upwards by acknowledging and delivering all that is required of the genre. He is helped immeasurably by DP Robert Elswit's darker, grittier palette and the clever dance of foreground and background movement that ratchets up the tension.
Typically intricate 'Mission: Impossible' plot
Whether anyone understands everything that's going on in this film (or any of the previous four films or the previous 171 TV episodes) is another matter. Part of the appeal of the M:I movies is the work required to keep up with them. There's always some shadowy organization or double agent to keep track of and Rogue Nation has both. It also introduces another nemesis: vengeful CIA honcho Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin, thank you God) who succeeds in dismantling the IMF and forcing two of its members, Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Benji (Simon Pegg), into the employ of the agency.
Hunley considers Ethan the lead architect of the IMF's destructive mayhem and wants him captured. Ethan is, of course, very hard to find and, at present, he's in London about to meet a grisly fate at the hands of The Syndicate, an organization of terrorists so shadowy that the CIA doesn't believe it exists. Upon his inevitable escape, Ethan must elude the CIA long enough to bring down The Syndicate.
Whereas the James Bond films are now steely, self-serious, and modern, the M:I films maintain a comforting, old-school, almost nostalgic feel, no matter how much near-future technology is invented to help our heroes (or complicate their efforts). The main villain and the kick-ass femme fatale even feel like Roger Moore-era Bond.
Friend or foe?
The latter is the film's most intriguing character. She is Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson, reminiscent of Lois Chiles from 1979's Moonraker). First seen as a member of The Syndicate, she may actually be working undercover for British intelligence.
Indeed, with the success of Ethan's primary mission hardly in doubt, the film's most compelling question becomes, who is the real Ilsa: the one about to assassinate a foreign leader at the Vienna Opera House (a satisfying Hitchcockian lift) or the one helping Ethan infiltrate an underwater safe to swap out a computer chip?
Either way, with Ethan forced to trust her, she does come in handy: she rides a mean motorcycle (a terrific Moroccan chase sequence that's thankfully not over-edited) and she knows how to brawl, although, sadly, like most women in these types of movies, her big fight move is locking an opponent between her thighs. Someone tell Black Widow from The Avengers that another franchise is stealing her moves.
'Extra-governmental shenanigans and terrorism activity'
Eventually, the IMF team is fully reunited (including Ving Rhames, in a wasted role) to insure that the pitiless, slithery leader of The Syndicate, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, all composed, seething menace) doesn't get his hands on some crucial information.
There was a time when the film's surprise revelations of extra-governmental shenanigans and terrorist activity would have held a mirror up to current events. Here it's just the next complication and, maybe, with all the real life extra-governmental shenanigans and terrorism activity going on, that's just fine.
See Tom Cruise run
What McQuarrie and his top-notch team have crafted is an extremely durable and well-assembled scaffolding to support Cruise, who has already announced a Mission: Impossible 6, guaranteeing at least a couple more hours of him jumping, fighting, possibly swimming, and definitely running. And really, there is nothing quite like seeing Tom Cruise run in a movie, the camera tracking backwards as his arms pump like pistons and his breath explodes from his worried mouth in controlled, sprinter's bursts.
In Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation it looks like he's chasing the bad guys. But really he's the one being chased: by our memories of three high-profile divorces, talk show couch jumping and his association with the mysterious, quasi-sinister Scientology. So far, through sheer force of star power, talent, and will, he's outrun them all. The only thing that'll ever catch up to Tom Cruise is time. But even the odds of that seem pretty impossible.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015).
Dir.: Christopher McQuarrie.
Scr.: Christopher McQuarrie. From a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce. Based on Bruce Geller's Mission: Impossible television series.
Cast: Tom Cruise. Jeremy Renner. Rebecca Ferguson. Simon Pegg. Sean Harris. Alec Baldwin. Ving Rhames. America Olivo. Simon McBurney. Jingchu Zhang. Tom Hollander. Jens Hultén.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation info via the IMDb.
Rebecca Ferguson and Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation images: Paramount Pictures.
Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation trailer: Paramount Pictures.