Thursday, August 13, 2015
The latest installment in the “Mission: Impossible” film franchise ranks as one of the best. “Jack Reacher” director Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation” (**** OUT OF ****) rivals its superlative predecessor “Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol” with spine-tingling suspense and spectacularly staged set-pieces. Mind you, things haven’t always been so first-rate. The initial “Mission: Impossible” movie was arguably exciting enough in its own right, especially when Tom Cruise suspended himself Spider-man style at CIA Headquarters to hack a computer. Nevertheless, the film portrayed one of the most beloved television series characters in such a sacrilegious light that most “Mission: Impossible” fanatics abhorred it. I grew up watching Peter Graves play Jim Phelps from 1967 to 1973 and then again briefly from 1988 to 1990 on the weekly, hour-long, CBS-TV program, and the heretical notion that Phelps could turn traitor constituted nothing short of blasphemy. Little did it matter that the people who produced “Mission: Impossible” gave Phelps legitimate grounds for his treachery. Comparably, this would be tantamount to turning either Marshal Dillon of “Gunsmoke” into a homicidal hellion or indicting Andy Griffith’s Sheriff Andy Taylor for police brutality. Never has a film franchise impugned a television character’s virtuosity with such cavalier abandon.
As the second entry in the Paramount franchise, director John Woo’s “Mission Impossible II” emerged as a vast improvement over the original and got things straightened out. The head-butting motorcycle confrontation between Ethan Hunt and the villain is something to remember as well Woo’s choreographed gunfights. Unfortunately, the stimulating third installment “Mission Impossible III” made an error almost as egregious as defaming Jim Phelps. Tom Cruise and director J.J. Abrams gave Ethan Hunt a wife to worry about, and that matrimonial madness provided the motive force in its contrived melodrama. The secret agent with a double life and a wife is the stuff of spoofs, and the marriage plot was predictable. Perhaps if they had substituted Hunt’s parents (remember them from the 1996 original?) for his wife, the idea might have been more palatable. As swiftly as the franchise got Ethan hitched, it got him just as quickly unhitched with ambiguous details. “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” kept Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) separated from his wife, and he reverted to single status as he had in “Mission Impossible II.” Happily, neither Cruise nor his latest collaborators have pulled anything as idiotic as “Mission Impossible III” with “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.”
Like the best James Bond extravaganzas, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” opens with a cliffhanger gambit. Ethan Hunt scrambles atop the wing of a military cargo plane, an Airbus A400M, as it trundles down the runaway for take-off. He slaloms off the wing down to the fuselage and seizes a convenient door handle. Hunt’s cyber genius colleague Benjamin Dunn (Simon Pegg of “Shaun of the Dead”) struggles to open the door remotely while Hunt clings desperately for dear life to it as the huge plane gains altitude. Reportedly, Cruise performed this barnstorming stunt on his own on an actual plane with a special camera attached to the fuselage to record the exploit. Frantically, Benji opens the wrong door, but eventually he opens the right door. Hunt gains access to the cargo hold and spots the pallet of VX-nerve gas missiles. The villains, a band of Chechen separatist fighters, discover Hunt’s presence too late, and he deploys the chute on the pallet, so both the missiles and he plunge into the blue. This snappy incident is peripherally related to the plot, and it gets this outlandish escapade off on the right foot. Mind you, this tense scene reunites Hunt with not only Benji but also series regular Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames of “Pulp Fiction”) and “Ghost Protocol” addition William Brandt (Jeremy Renner of “The Bourne Legacy”).
This time around our heroic quartet wrestles with their worst nightmare: the Syndicate, an enigmatic league of terrorists, alluded to at the end of “Ghost Protocol,” that threaten not only to destroy the IMF but also initiate global chaos. Predictably, of course, we know that Hunt and company will preserve the status quo. Nevertheless, writer & director Christopher McQuarrie takes everything right to the brink and lets it teeter. Earlier “Mission Impossible” movies relied on the plot device of ‘disavowing’ Ethan Hunt so he wound up as the man in the middle between the good guys and the bad guys. “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” raises the stakes considerably by ostracizing the entire IMF Agency, with bureaucratic, stuffed-shirt CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alex Baldwin of “The Hunt for Red October”) arguing passionately for the IMF’s dissolution after the San Francisco incident involving a Russian nuclear missile. Unless you’ve seen “Ghost Protocol,” you won’t know about this escapade. Meantime, IMF Representative William Brandt refuses to confirm or deny anything about the mission to which Hunley refers in his efforts to convince a Senate Committee to shut down Brandt’s group.
In London, Hunt stumbles onto the Syndicate quite by accident when he is heading for a briefing at an album shop called The Vinyl Option. He follows the usual procedure and enters a listening room with a recording. The big difference, however, is this briefing doesn’t originate from his own organization but instead from the opposition—The Syndicate. This shadowy, sinister organization consists of thousands of spies who have deserted their respective outfits and have been listed officially as dead. Think of the vintage Nick Nolte shoot’em up “Extreme Prejudice” (1987) from director Walter Hill where Nolte’s small time sheriff dealt with murderous combat veterans reported killed in action. Syndicate honcho Solomon Kane (Sean Harris of “Prometheus”) appears outside the booth, holds a silenced automatic pistol to the record shop clerk’s head, and shoots the poor girl in the noggin while a stupefied Hunt watches in horror from the listening booth as knock-out gas obscures his vision. When Hunt recovers consciousness, he finds himself in captivity, strapped to an eight-foot tall pole, in a locked, underground room. Pretty but pugnacious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson of “The White Queen”), a gorgeous babe with shapely legs who follows Kane’s orders to the letter, argues with a sadistic henchman called the ‘Bone Doctor’ (Jens Hultén of “Skyfall”) who wants to do more than question Hunt for information. The ‘Bone Doctor’ wants to carve him up, but Hunt surprises him with a head butt that knocks his adversary unconscious. A strenuously athletic bare-knuckled fight with the ‘Bone Doctor’s’ own henchmen ensues with Hunt decimating the opposition with Faust’s help. Essentially, this is the bulk of everything you need to know. McQuarrie’s movie with its complex, labyrinth-like plot defies synopsis.
“Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation” delivers everything that we’ve come to expect from this intrigue-laden, stunt-oriented, gadget-encumbered franchise. Our resourceful heroes still sport those latex masks that they peel off at dramatic moments to surprise us. Not surprisingly, they are required to break into and out of various buildings bristling with sophisticated security safeguards that sometimes challenge them to the point of death. The debonair 53-year old Cruise performs his own perilous stunts, virtually all of them hair-raising, acrobatic endeavors. He careens a small car around in a maze of narrow city streets with the villains in hot pursuit and then launches himself astride a motorcycle with daredevil gusto. Meanwhile, director Christopher McQuarrie succeeds at making everything appear doubly difficult for our protagonists, and they encounter an improbable but death-defying gauntlet of obstacles that would stymie lesser souls. Several scenes benefit from throttling tension because one set of heroes execute tasks that prevent another hero from either being captured or killed. Cruise and co-star Rebecca Ferguson team up in several helter-skelter, close quarters, combat scenes that surely required lots of rehearsal. Ferguson displays dazzling dexterity when she clashes with a henchman twice her size who wields a knife far larger than her blade. One of the best sequences has Cruise debating which villain to perforate before either assassinates a foreign dignitary during a live opera performance. Simon Pegg supplies the incidental comic relief that seasons this largely straightforward saga, while Sean Harris is effectively malicious as the chief villain. Everything from “Tomorrow Never Dies” lenser Robert Elswit’s widescreen cinematography to James D. Bissell’s production designs is appropriately polished to virtual perfection. The fifth globe-trotting “Mission Impossible” foray qualifies as a rapid-fire, white-knuckled, adrenalin-laced, nail-biter with momentum that never slackens and surprises that always astonish.