"Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation"

Released July 31, 2015
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

The prologue of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” may be the defining scene of Tom Cruise’s later career. 

The IMF team is trying to stop a cargo plane from taking off with a payload of nerve gas. Computer tech guru Benji (Simon Pegg) is in the distance with his tablet, trying to stop the plane from taking off. Team members Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther (Ving Rhames) are helping remotely but they can’t stop the plane. Here comes Ethan Hunt (Cruise) out of nowhere, running down (meme alert!) the departing plane and grabbing onto the side as it takes off. Here comes the money shot: Viewing from the back of the wing, we see Hunt on the side of the plane as it takes off in real time, the ground becoming a distant landscape as our hero hangs on for dear life. No special effects, just practical ingenuity on the part of the filmmakers.

It’s a thrilling scene to be sure, but one that nearly hits upon everything we know about Cruise in modern pop culture outside of his past relationships and current religion. He’s a somewhat aloof character who rarely appears outside of his movies, where he’s often sprinting somewhere to put himself in incredible danger, and that’s not a metaphor: Cruise’s dedication to putting out the best film possible is to be admired, even if it does mean strapping himself to the side of a cargo jet taking off just to get the shot, never once considering it’s probably easier and cheaper to have a stunt man or computer do it.

As Cruise rose to become one of the most bankable movie stars on the planet at the end of the last century, he did so by making a variety of pictures, including “Risky Business,” “Top Gun,” “Rain Man,” “A Few Good Men” and “Jerry Maguire.” But after the turn of the century, Cruise’s choices have leaned heavily on action and sci-fi films; ironically, right around the time when those kinds of movies began relying less on star power than IP awareness. It’s probably no coincidence that the most successful endeavor he’s had in his later career is the Mission: Impossible series, based on the 60s American television spy show, that made its big screen debut in 1996 with Cruise debuting his Ethan Hunt character and Brian DePalma directing.

The first film was a hit, and while DePalma departed the franchise, Cruise continued making future installments with notable directors like John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird that all bear their director’s signature touches. Somehow, the series continued to get better and better, as if Cruise and his team kept throwing out the bits that didn’t work in the previous installment and making the good parts better.

The series has had a resilient life at the box office as well, and perhaps in an age where the biggest movies feature CGI superheroes and animated characters, a compelling, exciting spy serial built on movie stars, modern cinematography and old-school stunt work makes for effective counter programming.

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is the series’ fifth installment, now with Christopher McQuarrie at the helm, who previously directed Cruise in his 2012 “Jack Reacher” movie and written several projects for the star. McQuarrie brings a James Bond touch to the franchise; while the series has had prologues in the past, the introduction of “Rogue Nation” isn’t far removed from a 007 start. The locations, stylish formal clothing and villain all have similar feels. The biggest Bond influence is felt in a new character Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a disavowed agent of the MI6 whose working relationship with terrorist organization the Syndicate leaves her loyalties in question.

Ilsa is the first female character in the film series who’s presented as equally intelligent, capable and dangerous as Ethan, and their connection (and Ferguson’s contribution to it) improves the franchise. Likewise, Sean Harris as Syndicate commander Solomon Lane proves to be a formidable opponent for the IMF team, skillfully staying one step ahead of the heroes at every turn. Alec Baldwin also joins the series as the CIA director who’s attempting to put the entire IMF organization on ice, arguing that Ethan’s past successes after flagrant disregard for agency practices and reckless decisions were merely luck, and the United States can’t continuing gambling against the house.

It’s a solid point. Lane’s well aware of Ethan’s past in the IMF, and often anticipates Ethan’s choices so much so that the hero starts second-guessing himself. The questions raised about IMF’s actions throughout the movie don’t scratch very deep, but they are engaging enough to hold our attention between the action.

What impresses about McQuarrie ‘s “Rogue Nation” is the variety of action, conflicts and tension that courses through the film. In each instance, whether it’s Ethan and Ilsa’s “meet cute” as they fight their way out of a torture basement or Cruise racing his way through the hills of Morocco on a motorcycle, making turns so deep, his knee is a hair’s length away from scraping the pavement, all of the stakes are clearly defined in a visually exciting way.

I’m still baffled why Cruise continues to focus on action films in his middle-aged years. My favorite Tom Cruise stretch is that period in the late 80s thru the 90s when he took on roles that played with the consequences and inner life of the looks and charm that made him famous. He’d be well suited at this stage of his career to star in more dramas, but whether it’s changes in the film industry or he’s just not interested in doing that kind of work, few of these other projects have really received the same kind of attention that the Mission: Impossible films have.

In any event, Cruise has steered the franchise to something fairly unique for its era. As our other silver screen heroes become more extraordinary and unbeatable, the Mission: Impossible series becomes more grounded and real. We can’t life a magic hammer to transport us to the other side of the galaxy, but holding our breath underwater for three minutes sounds difficult, and not impossible. As we watch Hunt and his team sprint across the globe, we look at them and think maybe we can do those things too.

The Legacy: “Rogue Nation” marked a first for the longtime film series: It became the first time the director decided to come back for another round. McQuarrie, Cruise and company returned for “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” in 2018, and oddly enough, it’s the first sequel that really tied into the previous installment. It’s also even better than “Rogue Nation,” in my opinion.

The Weekend: For the film industry, the summer season starts to wind down around this time, so this is historically a mixed bag of cult films and family movies. “Lost Boys” was released at this time in 1987, “Babe” dropped in 1995, and Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” surprised everybody in 2014. A small movie was also released in only four theaters in 1989, but it started the independent film boom of the 90s and the career of director Steven Soderbergh: “sex, lies and videotape.”

Next Week: “Unforgiven”