How do you top hanging Tom Cruise off the side of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world? Answer is, you don’t. Well, you try topping that by hanging Tom Cruise outside a plane in midair, but when that stunt–displayed in every commercial, trailer and publicity still–is featured before the opening credits and there’s no exciting payoff, you realize the franchise may be on its last legs. The basic plot of the film involves Cruise’s Ethan Hunt attempting to prove that a rogue anti-IMF team called The Syndicate is plotting to overthrow the world order through a series of covert terrorist operations. Problem is, the IMF has been disbanded and CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is gunning for Hunt. First issue: how many times have we seen the hero who knows the truth be derided, diminished and hunted by his peers? Second issue: in light of the Avengers and SHIELD battling Hydra and Bond preparing to battle SPECTRE, does an organization called The Syndicate instill any sense of fear in you?
Watching Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, I felt the same way as when I saw Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. I felt like the magic had waned and that I had seen all this before, done much better. Tom Cruise is still an action beast, performing nearly all of his own stunts. But at 53, Cruise seems to be showing his age just a bit. Now, in all transparency, I’m not much younger than Cruise and I look absolutely nowhere as good as he does with his shirt off. Not by a long shot. But I suppose 63 year old Liam Neeson has changed the paradigm of the action hero, so Cruise looks to have many years in front of him hanging off planes and jumping off buildings. Maybe there’s something to be said about Scientology. Wait, I’ve seen recent photos of John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, so that’s no explanation. Perhaps I’m conflating Cruise’s age with the age of the nearly twenty year franchise. But watching this film, both felt like they’re getting old.
I was amazed off the bat that the film blows its wad on what I thought was going to be the central action set piece, that being Tom Cruise hanging off the side of a cargo aircraft as it takes off. But no, this scene runs its course rather quickly and as mentioned, occurs before the opening credits. It’s soon followed by an absolutely interminable scene which takes place at a Vienna opera house. The action is minimal, and there are a number of characters involved in the scene which makes it somewhat confusing. I wondered if director Christopher McQuarrie, who previously directed the plodding Jack Reacher, was going for a Godfather type of tone, having the diegetic sound of the opera serve as the soundtrack for the scene. I found it boring and overlong.
This issue of boredom dogged me throughout the movie, abating in stops and starts with a few decent action scenes. There’s a decent car chase, which ends too soon; there’s a decent motorbike chase, which ends quickly with Cruise traveling at what seems to be 100 mph, then crashing and walking away injury-free. The suspension of disbelief required to digest that improbability is not quite as much as is required for the head-on car collision in Fast & Furious 7…but come on. In between these set pieces are long periods of confusing interactions where we try to figure out or try to remember who is working for whom and where all the players are located. The movie suffers from what I’ve dubbed the Lost syndrome, where, on that seminal TV show’s latter seasons, it came down to the characters constantly moving from one end of the island to the other end of the island and back again (Heros suffered from similar issues in its first season). Here, every few minutes or so, loyalties seem to change and it’s about “we have to find this person! Well, if we find THIS person, we’ll find THAT person! We have to get THIS person back from THAT person!” It’s like a human chess game which gets tiresome.
There’s a big action scene where Hunt dives into a server farm that’s cooled with explosive currents of water. The trick is that he only has three minutes to hold his breath while he sabotages the underwater system. At no point did I feel any suspense. In a film like The Abyss, we were held in suspense because there’s a chance any character could die underwater. Why? Because none of those characters were played by Tom Cruise! What’s really the point of showing us an oxygen meter which shows his oxygen steadily depleting? We know he will survive, which drains any suspense of him being trapped underwater. Addiitonally, all the obstacles are clearly telegraphed as to how they will prevent Hunt from smoothly doing his job. The minute I saw the set for this scene and all the components therein, I knew exactly what was going to happen and how it was going to affect Hunt. Even worse, one of the obstacles is Hunt’s own clumsiness, which is overly contrived. This setup attempts to create suspense by putting another team member at risk if Hunt does not complete his underwater mission. This is also a contrivance; I sat there thinking, why doesn’t this guy just wait until Hunt gives him an “all clear” before embarking on his portion of the mission? Lastly, critic Sean Hill of Hill Street Viewz also offers a great explanation as to why this scene really has no steam: because seeing people underwater is really not all that exciting.
The standout of the film is Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson. As a covert agent whose loyalties are in doubt, she has an amazing onscreen presence. She is one of the best Bond girls ever who does not appear in a Bond film. I know nothing about this actress, but she could give ScarJo some pointers for her next stint as Black Widow. Smouldering, sexy and deadly in what I believe is only her second Hollywood big budget film (the first being 2014’s Hercules), she goes toe-to-toe with Cruise vying for onscreen presence. Jeremy Renner and Alec Baldwin both are entertaining, but are not given much to do. Baldwin basically reprises his role from The Departed and Renner seems to have been demoted from rumored MI franchise successor down to comic relief. Simon Pegg brings the comedy and continues to make me scratch my head as to why anyone would allow him in the field. The most thankless role goes to Ving Rhames, who merits a welcome homecoming to the franchise, but has ultimately no purpose in the film.
Outside of the Fast & Furious franchise, it’s rare for sequels to consistently top each other in quality and entertainment. Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol set a benchmark that was impossible (I know, I know, it’s unavoidable) to overcome. Hell, the Burj Khalifa sequence blew away anything the previous films had shown me. So I shouldn’t be too hard on this film. But given the accolades it’s receiving, I guess I don’t have too much of a problem taking it down a peg or two (seriously, no pun intended, Simon).
P.S. I predicted this movie wouldn’t open big, but looks like I couldn’t have been more wrong. It raked in $64 million, which apparently is a record for the franchise and knocked Minions out of the top spot. Combine this with the fact that 50 and 60 year old actors are accepted as action stars nowadays means that Cruise will definitely be choosing to accept another mission. I just hope the franchise gets back on track.