Say what you will about Tom Cruise. He might be crackers—though, I suspect, not quite as crackers as YouTube and gossip rags would have us believe—but his commitment to the craft of cinematic entertainment is unwavering.
Maybe I should qualify that statement a little, because it’s a very specific brand of moviemaking at which Cruise, an A-list star and grade-A producer, excels. As an emoter, he doesn’t always seem comfortable in his own skin. Get him moving, though, and there are few who are better. Whether it’s his Herculean free climb in Mission: Impossible 2 or his many onscreen deaths in the woefully underseen and criminally mismarketed Edge of Tomorrow, there’s just something uniquely satisfying about watching Cruise cozy up to the Grim Reaper. There’s an easy, cynical explanation for that, but me? I just like the guy. I respect that he routinely risks his neck to show us a good time.
Never is that willingness to croak on camera more apparent than in the opening scene of Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. Cruise, famous for his DIY stunt work, dangles from a plane as it hurtles down a runway and lifts into the sky. Cruise actually did the stunt, held in place by a single, well-concealed harness and sheer willpower, I guess. And then he did it seven more times for coverage.
It’s that commitment to pure, old-fashioned big-screen spectacle that has helped make the Mission: Impossible franchise the most predictably solid of its kind over the past 19 years. Cruise might be showing a little wear around the edges, but those occasional hints of weariness vanish when he’s in action, scraping his knees on the pavement during a gravity-defying motorcycle chase or using his awesome abs to do a weird, insect-like shimmy up a pole to which he’s been chained. He’s also pretty funny; an unexpected pratfall is one of Rogue Nation’s best moments.
The franchise’s rotating roster of auteur directors, from Brian De Palma to Brad Bird, is also a big part of its appeal. This time it’s Christopher McQuarrie, who also directed Cruise in Jack Reacher, at the helm. He’s less of an overt stylist than the franchise’s previous directors, but that’s not to say he’s any less competent. Case in point: a fabulous Hitchcockian set piece that puts Cruise’s super-agent, Ethan Hunt, at the center of an elaborate plot to assassinate the chancellor of Austria at Vienna’s State Opera House during a performance of Turandot. It’s a breathtakingly suspenseful sequence that ranks as one of the franchise’s highlights so far.
Rogue Nation’s plot, as is often the case in these movies, has so many wrinkles that it’s occasionally mystifying. Hunt has once again gone rogue, this time to shut down a ring of presumed-dead spies known as the Syndicate. These guys are so shadowy that even other shadowy organizations think they’re way too shadowy to exist, so the onus is on Hunt to A) prove they’re real, and B) catch or kill their leader, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). His teammates, played by the always fun Simon Pegg, a frequently exasperated Ving Rhames, and a sadly underused Jeremy Renner, run interference when the Impossible Mission Force is shut down by a bombastic bureaucrat (Alec Baldwin, whose casting is a punch line that never gets old).
But a funny thing happens on the way to the requisite unmaskings and third-act gunfight: Hunt meets up with Ilsa Faust, a British agent who proves to be his equal in every way. In fact, she spends most of her time rescuing Hunt. Played by relative newcomer Rebecca Ferguson, Faust might be the best M:I character so far. She’s also arguably the most important character in the latest installment, even overshadowing Hunt. Rogue Nation’s gender politics are more closely aligned with Mad Max: Fury Road than, say, the stunningly regressive Jurassic World, and the movie is all the better for it. (Of course, a guy like Hunt can’t go around wantonly not rescuing people, so Pegg steps in as the imperiled sidekick. It’s a blast.)
Ferguson doesn’t really steal the film, though—Cruise offers it up to her, and the chemistry between them is terrific. They don’t share so much as a kiss; if Ilsa climbs on top of a guy, it’s to choke the life out of him with her signature Mortal Kombat-esque guy-choking move. Character and actress are both so good that I’m up for a spin-off: Mission: Impossible – The Ilsa Files. Someone please get on that.
April Snellings is a staff writer and project editor for Rue Morgue Magazine, which reaches more than 500,000 horror, thriller, and suspense fans across its media platforms. She recently joined the lineup of creators for Glass Eye Pix's acclaimed audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
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