Part of me is surprised they’re still making these movies. I thought part four (Ghost Protocol) was supposed to be the end of Ethan Hunt’s misadventures, but rather than pass the torch to Jeremy Renner’s Agent Brandt, both Renner and Tom Cruise are back for a fifth outing. It’s not often that franchises get to a part five, and it’s even less often that part five is actually any good. But in a weird twist of fate, this part five is probably my second favorite of the series after the original.
When CIA Director Alan Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin, shows up to strip funding from the IMF, it seems like the days of impossible missions are over. Which is a real kick in the nards, since Ethan and co. have been on the trail of a vicious crime syndicate that always seems to be one step ahead of them, and Ethan finally has a lead on the main bastard behind the whole thing (played by Sean Harris, probably most known for his role as the assassin Micheletto on The Borgias). Of course, Ethan isn’t about to take that kind of crap from a chump like the CIA Director, even if it is Alec Baldwin, so he enlists the help of his old pals Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and William Brandt (Renner), as well as a pretty double (triple?) agent named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson).
It’s not an amazing plot. Honestly it’s something we’ve seen a million times: shadowy crime organization led by mysterious mastermind outsmarts the good guys at every turn, and it takes a few loose canon super spies who don’t play the rules to save the day. There are death defying stunts, an impossible heist, copious fisticuffs, a breakneck chase sequence, guns being fired every which way, more than a few laughs, and plenty of twists and turns. None of this is original stuff, but it’s executed with near flawless precision, and I was grinning and munching popcorn like an idiot the whole time.
The action is what you expect, and to be quite honest, deserve from a movie like this. Summer blockbusters are supposed to wow us with awesome spectacles, but too often we’re let down by crappy camera work, bland choreography, repetitive action sequences, or an over-reliance on CG. Rogue Nation knows exactly what it’s supposed to be and handles itself quite nicely. In the opening moments of the movie we see the now-famous scene from all the trailers where Tom Cruise hangs onto the door of an airplane as it takes off, most of us with the knowledge that Cruise is actually hanging onto a real airplane. Most of the movie is like that: some CG when necessary, but an abundance of practical effects and stunning location shots the totally pulled me in and made me believe it was really happening.
More than anything I liked the characters. Director Christopher McQuarrie makes no attempt to delve into Ethan Hunt’s psyche and explore how being an IMF agent has affected his personal relationships, the way J. J. Abrams tried to do things in part three. I actually love this. This is a non-stop action movie, and while I appreciate subtle character moments that give us insight into who these people are, long introspective sequences just grind things to a halt.
This is not to say the movie is without romance or personality. There’s certainly chemistry between Hunt and Faust, but it’s never realized or a driving force of the plot. Instead it’s a steady undercurrent running beneath the loud and magnetic external conflict. They both get moments of partial-nudity to titillate the audience, and they both dance around whether or not they actually trust one another. It’s a great dynamic, and I appreciate that the film never strays too far into romantic territory.
Rebecca Ferguson is pretty great as Faust. She’s a person of nuance and precision, accustomed to doing things a certain way according to a set of values that seem inscrutable at first to Hunt and the audience. She is never a damsel, and in fact a huge part of the action revolves around her saving the day and whooping ass in some way or another. There’s never condescension from Hunt or the other male cast members; only fear and respect.
I also have to make special mention of Sean Harris as the villain. I’m deliberately avoiding saying much about him, including his name, because getting to know this character is one of the greatest pleasures I had watching the movie. He’s aloof, capable, and a total bastard, but somehow avoids being a generic mustache twirler. Like every character in the movie, we don’t spend a lot of time digging into his personal pathos, but the subtle touches we do get give us enough to understand his motivations and personality. I was as rabid to discover more about this dude as Ethan Hunt was in the movie, and it totally pulled me in. The gradual reveals about his identity and master plan are perfectly spaced out, all building to an extremely satisfying final confrontation with Hunt.
One guy stands out like a sore thumb in this movie, and that’s Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell, the only other character to have appeared in all five films. It’s great to see that attention to continuity, even if he only got an overpaid, unbilled cameo in part four, but Ving really phones it in for this one. It’s not really his fault, though. I got the sense that McQuarrie and the writers just didn’t know what the hell to do with him. Stickell is super computer hacker man, but as of part three we also have Simon Pegg’s Dunn as super computer hacker man. In part four Stickell was basically absent the entire time, so Dunn became the sole hacker man in the group. With both Pegg and Rhames back in main roles, it’s hard to figure out a good reason to have two hacker dudes. Stickell is forced to take a back seat in a support role while Dunn participates on the ground in most of the spy shenanigans. I don’t know if this is because Rhames was unwilling or unable to be present for most of filming or if the writers just decided to shunt him to the side, but either way it’s a waste of a good actor and character.
Rogue Nation is my favorite action movie of the summer by far. Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys are both too dumb to stand the test of time, but Rogue Nation is a movie I could see myself watching many times, preferably with a strong beverage in hand. It doesn’t take itself as seriously as the first or third movies, but it won’t insult you with an idiotic plot the way part four did. Every beat lands right on schedule, and there’s nothing so dumb that it pulls you out of the movie. Go see this one on the big screen, folks. It’s worth the money.