Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Sean Harris, the looming Solomon Lane of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, has a great face for a villain. A frowning scar of a mouth cut into his face and two little ends of the world where his eyes should be. His rasping voice makes his every word sound like a tired sigh before he kills you. One day, he's gonna be the villain in a good movie, and he's going to make you shit yourself. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is not a good movie.
The film tells the story once more of Ethan Hunt (played as ever by tiny-eyed, intense little human pinball Tom Cruise) and his team of IMF squadmates, this time battling an invisible organisation of international secret agents known as The Syndicate (alternate names include The Operation, The Franchise, Bad Guys R Us Pty Ltd). On the outer with the government and going rogue themselves, the IMF has to suit up one last time and take care of some bad people who we know are bad because they are not good. Well, the main bad guy shoots a record store employee the first time he shows up, so I guess they’re at least a little bad.
The Mission Impossible film series is an interesting one. Every film in the series so far has operated as a sort of apology for the one preceding it. Mission Impossible 1 was too complicated, so Mission Impossible 2 was simple. Mission Impossible 2 was too superficial, so Mission Impossible 3 gave main character Ethan Hunt a wife. And now, here we are, at Mission Impossible 5, an apology for Mission Impossible: Ghost Babylon, but there’s one major problem with this system: there was no need to apologise for Mission Impossible: Ghost Babylon. Helmed by Pixar director Brad Bird, Ghost Babylon was an exciting, kinetic, pared-back action film, with an animator’s eye towards the geography of its setpiece scenes and a bright, lively sense of fun to carry it all along. Ghost Babylon was, out of nowhere, one of the best action movies of the last ten years, and the fact it came out of the overloaded, inconsistent Mission Impossible series was no small miracle.
But again, here we are at Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Where Ghost Babylon barely had an antagonist, being more interested in being a well-crafted wind-up toy than a shadowy backroom spy drama, Rogue Nation has at least three, and a femme fatale to keep you guessing. Where Ghost Babylon had a clear set of objectives for the team to accomplish and drew its drama from those schemes not going according to plan, Rogue Nation has the murky objectives and morality of a serious espionage narrative, and that’s the problem at the heart of Rogue Nation: it’s at war with itself, half silly stunt drama and half new world Spy Game, and while the stunts are fun when they show up, the spy drama is made ridiculous by them, and bores as a result.
When Tom Cruise is hanging off aeroplanes and driving cars backwards through Moroccan marketplaces, the film picks up, but after a while you start to drift off whenever a character opens their mouth. At two hours, the film drags. The worst victim of this narrative conflict is Rebecca Ferguson’s aforementioned femme fatale, Ilsa Faust (yes, her surname is Faust. Her father was Oedipus Faust, and her mother was Symbolism Metaphor). Her character is a MI6 agent who might have been undercover with the Syndicate too long, and the film plays with the idea that she’s gone over to the other side. But these divided loyalties don’t add intrigue to the plot, they’re just another obstacle in the way of getting to the next action scene. A particularly egregious example has her and Tom Cruise narrowingly surviving a terrifying dive into an underwater computer system (look, the film’s complicated. Complicated, but not clever.) From here, the film need only travel to the next car chase as the characters try to make away with the information they’ve stolen, and any exposition could be delivered on the hoof. Instead, the film dallies, heavily setting up a possible betrayal by Faust and lingering on the implications of that betrayal, not understanding for a moment that we just don’t care, and we know men with guns are coming.
The film is constantly getting in its own damn way- there are other mechanical issues. The heavy of the piece, Jens Hulten’s hulking “Bone Doctor” is easily incapacitated with a single Tom Cruise powered kick on his first appearance, but then hangs around as the main physical threat, despite the fact he no longer seems to pose any. Ving Rhames shows up as the IMF’s hacking expert, Luther Stickell, pulling double duty with Simon Pegg’s Benji, who is also the IMF’s hacking expert. Jeremy Renner and Alec Baldwin wander around corridors in another movie about government counter-terrorism funding. It’s all a rich tapestry. Sean Harris, as noted, is a fine monster, but his Solomon Lane commits one of the key sins of movie villains: offing a henchmen just because he’s annoyed. That’s not how you build loyalty. The film looks like a proper spy drama, with deep shadows and glistening European streets; at one stage, a data disk is handed off by the bank of the Thames to a man reading a newspaper...again, it’s all in stark contrast to the overlit bright blue skies of Ghost Babylon. Director Christopher McQuarrie should make a proper spy movie, far away from these cartoon characters. I’d watch it. Sean Harris could be the villain.
The actors are cast to type, and they do the job. Ferguson’s Faust has structural problems, but she looks like she really could break your neck with her legs; Tom Cruise is a useful projectile; Simon Pegg is not just funny and relatable as the hacker Benji, he also gives excellent “what the fuck is going on?” face, even if halfway through the film, most of the audience will be sharing his expression.