The hellacious curtain raiser for “Rogue Nation”, the fifth installment of the “Mission: Impossible” film franchise, finds the series’ recurring protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) clinging to a cargo plane as it lifts off. Ostensibly Hunt wants to board this plane mid-flight because it is piloted by Chechen rebels who possess nuclear arms. Yet the plane just as easily could have been piloted by treasonous Canadian Mounties who illegally possess Vermont Maple Syrup. Hunt, comically bickering with fellow agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and his ace technician Benji (Simon Pegg) by headset while dangling, seems less interested in what’s on the airbus than whether or not he can actually pull off this mid-flight stunt. It’s a sequence played more for amusement than dramatic effect, a sensation analogous of the whole film, where even its most tense moments are infused with action movie joie de vivre. It isn’t about self-serious heroism; it’s about wanton brinksmanship.
Wanton brinkmanship, in fact, is the phrase employed by CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) as he convinces a Senate committee to shut down the Impossible Mission Force. “They’re a throwback,” he dismissively declares in the midst of his plea. So is the film. While so many summer tentpole movies have acquired emotional baggage as a means to ground their stories in realism, “Rogue Nation” jettisons any pretense of reality the instant Ethan gets himself into that airliner pickle, no baggage to check, thanks.
Cruise’s characters so often have someone to avenge, scars of the past to heal, but for “Rogue Nation’s” Ethan everything is refreshingly present tense. He’s only got what’s he going after and that is Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), chief of the vile Syndicate, a kind of “anti-IMF” used for evil rather than good, whose requisite diabolical scheme seems to exist of nothing more than daring Ethan to come and get him. That’s all “Rogue Nation” is really – one big dare and as Cruise’s Brian Flanagan once opined, When a guy lays down a dare, you gotta take it. So Ethan does, over and over.
Lane is admittedly a bland baddie, essentially faceless, seen as a sketch on a drawing pad just as often as in person. And that’s okay because the real villain here isn’t even Lane (he’s just the piece of cheese at the end of the maze); it’s Hunley, played with patented droll pomposity by Baldwin. His character’s shuttering the IMF has caused Ethan to become a fugitive, and so as Ethan chases Lane, Hunley chases Ethan. Hunley, though, is no match for our on-the-lam hero, and nor should he be.
Now you could read Hunley’s disdain for the IMF as commentary on governmental candidness mucking up the unmitigated secrecy necessary to keep us safe or you could see Hunley as something more akin to Margaret Dumont in old Marx Brothers movies, continually disgusted by the hero’s actions and eternally foiled by them nonetheless. (Psssssst...it’s the latter.) Steam practically billows from Baldwin’s ears every time Ethan gets the best of him, never more so than a rip-roaring, repartee-driven late film sequence where he goes from being one step ahead to thirty-nine steps behind in the blink of an eye. His reaction is worthy of a silent film. Curses!
In addition to Benji and Brandt, Ethan’s longtime cohort, dating all the way back to the first “M:I” movie, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) turns up, yet they all take a backseat to the suspiciously named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), the fetching Swede who just like “Casablanca’s” immortal Ilsa Lund finds her allegiance pulled every which way. (Ferguson looks so much like the late great Ingrid Bergman that I kept waiting for her to pull off one of those famous “M:I” latex masks to reveal another face.) She matches right up to Ethan, eye-to-eye, though only after she kicks off her high heels, a little aside that feels humorously humongous, suggesting Cruise is on the whole joke. Though she transforms into his antagonistic love interest, this is PG-13 and they’re not allowed to have sex, which is okay because they just end up doing it, so to speak, in an intoxicating mountainside motorcycle chase anyway. That’s why Ethan acquires his most flamboyant article of clothing – an acid jungle print button-up – just prior to mounting his steed; it’s their first date and he wants to look his best. And even if she gets away, he catches back up, because that’s their push & pull, accomplices and enemies.
She’s also just as adept at ass-kicking as Ethan, saving his Yankee bacon not once but twice, most unforgettably in an underwater escape sequence where outfit with an armband that counts down his oxygen supply (movie prop of the year!), he has three minutes to hold his breath or else. The lead-up to this unforgettable bit of aqua derring-do comes to encapsulate “Rogue Nation” as a whole, a verbally dexterous sequence in which Ethan, Ilsa and Benji luxuriate in an opulent room, talking through strategic options of how to achieve their aim, dismissing plausible plans until they hit an idea that’s truly impossible. You can imagine writer/director Christopher McQuarrie doing the same with his think tank.
Ethan’s quest to find Lane is nothing more than a globe-trotting parlor game of action set pieces, each one effectively reaching its own level of OMG grandeur without piggybacking on the last, live action Loony Tunes that know the real stakes in these sorts of full-throttle epics are merely whether or not something is so electrically rendered it makes you laugh out loud. “Rogue Nation” made me laugh out loud more than most so-called comedies. Almost everything is electrically rendered. If the climactic sequence leaks just a little it’s only because the preceding two hours were walking on air, and upon re-entry I was more than willing to look the other way. As good as Hollywood gets, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is mindless escapism as art.