Maybe you haven’t heard yet, but Tom Cruise did a big stunt for the new Mission: Impossible movie. Remind me to send you a link to the trailer. And the post-stunt interview. And the behind-the-scenes featurette. And all the articles. And blog posts. And pictures. And poster. Actually, if you’re willing to not ask about Scientology in any way, I think we can get Cruise himself to re-enact the stunt in your driveway.
The acrobatic performance, with Cruise’s spymaster Ethan Hunt clinging to the side of big transport plane as it taxis and takes off, was billed as a major piece of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. Turns out, it was just a marketing stunt. The scene, dropped into the first five minutes of the movie and left largely untethered to the rest of the plot, might be the most overhyped thing since Amazon’s disastrously unrewarding Prime Day.
But the scene, and its function as an innocuous jump-start to Rogue Nation, is revealing because it highlights a dangerous lean this franchise is making toward the James Bond franchise — all that’s missing from Cruise’s plane scene are those blaring horns and a silhouette firing a pistol into screen. One of Ethan Hunt’s endearing charms is that he clearly wasn’t James Bond. This, and so much more in Rogue Nation, feels like an abandonment of the franchise.
What irks me most about this lovably goofy spy caper is that it’s a cliché factory. Most action movies are, but this one hams it up under the guise of “serious espionage thriller,” as if it’s immune to sniper assassins blithely waltzing past security guards at the opera, or rubber masks that can flawlessly render wearers into anyone else in the film, or the umpteenth “impenetrable computer behind an impenetrable vault within an impenetrable fortress” gag. We get it already with the spy stuff! It's also interesting how everything is hackable, until the plot requires it to be unhackable.
Rogue Nation begins in the bureaucracy of Washington, D.C. The director of the CIA (Alec Baldwin at his most Jack Donaghy) is lobbying congress to let the CIA absorb Hunt’s IMF branch — they’re no longer needed, he says. Hunt, meanwhile, is convinced that a group known as SPECTRE … oops, I mean the Syndicate, is plotting terrorist attacks around the world. The CIA, an organization that took us to war in Iraq on faulty intelligence, now suddenly balks at bombing, spying and eavesdropping on the Syndicate. The easier solution, inexplicably, is to disavow Hunt and make him the fugitive.
Off Hunt goes around the world, or at least to places that helped finance the film, in his race to track down a nefarious villain he has only seen through a smoky window. Along the way he meets Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a British spy who is so entangled in the Syndicate that she has some kind of exclusive tenure. Every mission she’s on is bungled by her or Hunt, yet the Syndicate keeps welcoming her back with open arms for no other reason than the plot demands it.
The middle part of the film takes place in Morocco, where Hunt and Faust — and the remnants of IMF, including characters played by Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg — must break into an unbreakable place. These mid-movie heists are classic Mission: Impossible stunts, and this one is suitably silly inside a flooded liquid-cooled vault cylinder. Nevermind that no one — ever — has had this many redundant and needless security features, and within a nuclear power plant of all places. Of course, it’s not hackable from the outside, so Hunt has to go in and swap out a lo-fi cartridge inside the vault’s hi-fi wheel of death. It’s all preposterously dopey, but it’s hard not to smile at it all.
What follows are rote passages involving motorcycles, bad guys firing blindly around our heroes and a CGI car crash that might be the automobile version of that terrible CGI plane crash at the end of Air Force One. Seriously, this crash must have been uploaded into the film from a floppy disk — it looks old and outdated.
But Rogue Nation does have some light-hearted laughs, though, including a scene in which Hunt and one of the opera snipers silently fight on the overhead background lights during a performance. The lights lower and raise, like platforms in a video game. The sniper has a flute-rifle and it’s gloriously stupid and charming all at once. It’s also fun to watch Pegg and Renner spar with Cruise, who is always a good sport. There are more jokes this time around. There’s also more product placement, including an unforgivable Halo 5 scene that should be shot into space and what amounts to about 30 minutes of BMW commercials.
With James Bond tackling SPECTRE later this year, and that whole 007 franchise growing increasingly more serious in tone and structure, Mission: Impossible should try another approach entirely. We saw a shift in the franchise before, particularly from Part 2 to Part 3, and again moving into Part 4, Ghost Protocol, which found the right breakdown of fun/serious. Rogue Nation feels like a step back for a franchise that was slowly starting to figure it all out.