Overview: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) goes rogue after the Impossible Missions Force is dissolved and pursues the truth about a shadowy terrorist organization called The Syndicate. Paramount Pictures; 2015; Rated PG-13; 131 Minutes.
The Plunge: If Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was a mountain, Rogue Nation is a waterslide. Ghost Protocol leaned heavily on its Dubai tower climb, and with good reason, but the film suffers from the feeling that it peaks with an hour still left to go. Rogue Nation, on the other hand, opens with its biggest and craziest scene. The stunt where Ethan Hunt hangs off of the side of a plane that you’ve seen in every piece of marketing for the film is just its pre-credits sequence. It’s the first piece of a unique decrescendo structure in Rogue Nation; the film’s action scenes get smaller and smaller in scale as they go on, rather than the escalation of stakes you see in other blockbusters. Rogue Nation’s brilliance is in how it primes us to apply the scope of its biggest sequences to its smallest ones. The thrill of a waterslide isn’t in the time you spend at the top, it’s in each second that brings you closer to its inevitable bottom. It’s the movement that matters, much more than the height of any one moment you spend on it. The progression of Rogue Nation’s descent in scale distracts you from the fact that it’s descending at all. The film rides the tension of its earliest scenes all the way to its climax, their residual thrill applying to everything that follows. It’s a risky gambit, but it pays off. How appropriate for a Mission: Impossible film.
Rookie Mistakes & Beginner’s Luck: Having to follow the work of a filmmaker as accomplished as Brad Bird would be challenging for anyone, let alone someone like Christopher McQuarrie, who is primarily a screenwriter. This isn’t his first time directing a feature, but at times his lack of experience shows. His work on Rogue Nation is rough-shod at times, with some unfortunate choices tarnishing the integrity of the action. Tom Cruise actually hung off the side of that plane, but the way that it’s shot — with only a section of the plane visible taking up the left side of the frame and the rest of the frame comprising the backdrop — makes it look like a green-screen effect. But it’s not all bad. There are several sequences which are executed with a master’s precision, the Vienna Opera scene being the best example. Every shot in that scene introduces a new wrinkle, a new (sometimes literal) moving piece, and the film manages to keep all those balls in the air the entire time. Disparate elements shift and intersect, all of them with their own unknown motivations and goals, and the protagonists are tasked with solving the puzzle while also trying to avoid being killed. And as I mentioned, it only gets more complicated as it goes on. McQuarrie has an adventurous spirit and a keen mind, but his best trait might be that he respects the spy film as its own distinct genre. The trailer for Spectre, the new installment in that other big spy movie franchise, played before Rogue Nation, but I’d be hard-pressed to find any examples of actual spying in it. McQuarrie understands that he isn’t making just another action film, and Rogue Nation is about the nature of espionage in a way that the previous Mission: Impossible films never approached.
Thinking Again: McQuarrie’s most famous work is his screenplay for The Usual Suspects, a film remembered almost exclusively for its bonkers twist ending. Mission: Impossible is a series familiar with reversals of that nature, but McQuarrie goes further than I ever could have imagined that he would with Rogue Nation. There’s not a single scene in this film that doesn’t contain or end with a major rug-pull moment. Just when you think you’ve found solid ground, the film changes everything you think you know about it. Loyalties and plans and desires all change with the wind. It’s a series of nested twists, and when the film ends I still wasn’t sure if we’d found the bottom. To draw another premature Spectre comparison, that film and its predecessor Skyfall both seek to dig deep within Bond and learn more about him as a person. Rogue Nation, on the other hand, doesn’t believe that there’s anything to dig for in these characters. When you’ve been a spy for this long, there’s nothing left for you to conceal. You are an endless series of masks, and the best you can do at the end of the day is settle on one that you like the most. In this regard, Rogue Nation may end up being a seminal entry in the spy genre. For the foreseeable future, though, all we can say is that it’s really good at what it does. And if you’ll indulge me one last Bond reference: Nobody does it better.
Wrap-Up: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is less polished than its immediate predecessor, but it makes up for it with its brazenly knotty narrative and some outstanding set-pieces.