Monday, August 03, 2015

"Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation": review

[No major spoilers in this review. Read without fear.]

Fresh from watching "Kingsman" (reviewed here), I just saw "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" this past Sunday. It occurred to me, while watching "Rogue Nation," that the Impossible Mission Force, or IMF, is analogous to Kingsman in that both are independent agencies that perform all manner of covert, espionage-related operations.* But once the IMF/Kingsman parallel arose in my head, I became confused by this film's implication that the IMF wasn't independent at all, but was in fact a sanctioned arm of the US government, thus making it subject to restrictions and even to dissolution.

"Rogue Nation" also shares a major trait with an old Bruce Lee film: "Enter the Dragon." What "Nation" and "Dragon" have in common is that there's no ticking time bomb driving the action: the main antagonist in "Nation" is a shadowy agency called the Syndicate, an "anti-IMF" as Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) puts it, led by rogue operative Solomon Lane (the extremely unpleasant-looking Sean Harris, whom you might remember as the unfortunate crewman who turns into a mutant zombie in "Prometheus"), but I don't think we ever find out what Lane's master plan is, aside from trying to access British funds to finance global terrorism. Unlike with super-antagonist Kurt Hendricks in the previous film (reviewed here), there's no immediate, obvious, and globally catastrophic threat to humanity. Basically, "Rogue Nation" is about Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his attempt to root out and destroy the Syndicate, an organization whose existence even the CIA doubts.

Despite the lack of a ticking time bomb, though, "Rogue Nation" moves nimbly from action set piece to action set piece. Chris McQuarrie, who also directed Cruise in "Jack Reacher" (reviewed here), does a good job with pacing and visuals. While I wouldn't rate "Rogue Nation" as highly as the delirious ocular feast that was "Mad Max: Fury Road" (see review here), I'd say it manages to be pulse-pounding on its own terms. Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson as possibly rogue British agent Ilsa Faust is both a lively and a lovely addition to the cast; some critics have argued that she's playing a better version of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. I can see their point. As with the previous film, "Rogue Nation" ably shoehorns in the requisite expository dialogue to prevent us from being too confused by the plot, which keeps the audience in the game.

If you've seen the preview trailer for this movie, then you've seen the massive airplane stunt that occurs at the very beginning of the film. Cruise apparently really did get pulled 5,000 feet into the air to perform that stunt, and later on, he really did film his lung-bursting underwater scene in a single long take. (In the movie, suspense is created when Ethan Hunt is told he will have to hold his breath for three minutes while under water; in real life, Tom Cruise trained to hold his breath for six minutes, or so claims Wikipedia. While this piece of trivia tends to deflate the suspense of that scene in the film, it has the effect of bolstering my respect for Mr. Cruise's insane commitment to his craft.)

Two issues are worth discussing. First is the way the movie fleshes out the friendship between Ethan Hunt and Benji Dunn. By the time we reach the third reel, it's obvious that Ethan is willing to die alongside Benji in a gamble to save Benji's life. You couldn't ask for a more sincere expression of friendship than a willingness to die with your friend. That scene, plus much of the Ethan/Benji dialogue that came before it, serves to cement a relationship that had never been quite so fleshed out in any of the previous films (Pegg's Benji didn't become part of the cast until the third movie in the franchise). The second issue is how the movie handles Ethan himself. Although the narrative style is third-person omniscient, Ethan's teammates are given reason to believe that he might merely be chasing shadows: it could well be that the Syndicate doesn't exist, and that Ethan is just a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist piecing together random events and attributing them all to some sinister, underlying cause. As was the case in the previous film, the tension caused by this problem is most obvious between Ethan and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner, affably bug-eyed), with Brandt being the loudest skeptic in the room. The movie could have made more of Ethan's mental state by making the Syndicate even more shadowy, but it was still good to see the film casting some doubt on, and thereby humanizing, its hero.

There were also some scenes and plot points that didn't quite make sense to me, but I can't delve into those issues without heading into spoiler territory. It could also be that a second viewing might clear up some of my confusion, but I doubt I'll be seeing this movie again anytime soon. All in all, "Rogue Nation" was the summertime action movie that "Terminator Genisys" (review here) should have been. The plot was spare but just convoluted enough to keep us grown-ups interested; the action scenes were often amazing and impressive (and after not having fired a gun at all in the previous picture, Ethan Hunt was back to using firearms in this film); and while the film wasn't particularly profound, there was just enough character development to keep picky people like yours truly more or less happy.

Some final remarks: there's a screen capture of a moment from "Rogue Nation" that shows Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust shooting over Ethan Hunt's shoulder. When I first saw this picture, I thought, "Huh. It looks as though she's using Hunt as a shield." I was more right than I knew, and this action sequence is rather crucial to the film's climax. I won't examine the scene any further than that so as not to spoil the plot for you.

That said, "Rogue Nation" is great summer entertainment. See it before it leaves theaters.

*The usual curmudgeons will note that the Mission Impossible series came first, so it would be more apropos to say that Kingsman is analogous to the IMF.

1 comment:

John from Daejeon said...

Decent film, but millions of us have already seen it done better, and much sexier, as the story played out over half a decade in J.J. Abrams' "Alias." Of course, that was way back in the early 00's when Bradley Cooper was just a second tier sidekick to Jennifer Garner. Anyway, today's Millennials aren't expected to remember, or know of, "Felicity," "Alias," or "Lost." They only know J.J. from "Star Trek" and now "Star Wars." So, they wouldn't even know if he's taken to recycling plots directly from his earlier works to further his "Bad Robot" production of the "Mission: Impossible" film franchise. Hell, some of the movie plots even hearken back to those long ago days of the 1960's and the original "Mission: Impossible" tv series starring the late, great Peter Graves and Leonard Nimoy.

As for, "Ilsa Faust is both a lively and a lovely addition to the cast; some critics have argued that she's playing a better version of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow," they obviously need a little reminder of Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow in "Alias." She was kicking ass several years before "The Black Widow" made it to the big screen. One of the more memorable asses belonged to Quentin Tarantino in the first season episodes, "The Box" parts 1 and 2. And back then, J.J. was using his syndicates for the likes of the Bhopal disaster and the Shigaraki train disaster.

If you've never seen "Alias" before, I'd start with "The Box" episodes from the first season to see if you'd like to see more of it. Personally, many of the best episodes are actually in season 5 when Amy Acker and Rachel Nichols joined the cast. Amy was as deliciously evil in the last season's episodes.

I just hope J.J.'s latest directing gig is at least as good as his "M:I" productions of the last few years. I'm taking his continued filming of his new "Star Wars" film with a broken back to be a good sign (along with Harrison Ford's broken leg when J.J. broke his back trying to hold up the door of the Falcon) and not an omen of a bad film. That's your review that I've been waiting for this year. But "Star Wars" has got its work cut out for it to be better than "Ant-Man" which was quite the surprise, especially the work of Micheal Douglas in the film.