Friday, July 31, 2015

Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation: Solid Cruise control

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and action violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.31.15

While not quite the exhilarating thrill ride of 2011’s Ghost Protocol, which so spectacularly revived the stalled franchise, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation nonetheless delivers plenty of action and suspense, leavened with just the right soupçon of droll wit.

Every time Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) gets into a jam — which is frequently, in this action-
packed adventure — the mysterious Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) isn't far behind. Trouble is,
Ethan doesn't know anything about her ... including whether she can be trusted.
Although star/producer Tom Cruise’s guiding hand continues to be felt, he wisely has retreated from the camera-hogging antics that marred the series’ second and third entries. I’d like to think he bowed to the wisdom of co-producer J.J. Abrams — absolutely the 21st century wunderkind, when it comes to chaperoning beloved pop-culture properties (most notably Star Trek and Star Wars, in addition to his work here) — who astutely revived the formula that creator/producer Bruce Geller exploited so well, during the show’s initial seven-year television run.

Which is to say: teamwork, teamwork, teamwork. Along with way-cool tech, and the signature locked room-style assignments that require ingenious solutions ... hence the whole reason behind that “impossible” moniker.

Cruise & Co. introduced the increasingly crazed physical stunts and, yes, the welcome humor. (Geller’s show, for all its appeal, always was a bit dry.) The result has blossomed into an engaging blend of Bond, Hitchcock and other action/suspense sources.

Cruise also deserves credit for what has become another Mission staple: genuine stunt work by actual performers, as opposed to Hollywood’s increasing reliance on CGI and green-screen trickery. It really does make a difference, in terms of our emotional engagement; when Cruise roars pell-mell into a motorcycle chase, taking curves at suicidal speeds, our heart-in-mouth response is that much stronger.

San Andreas may have been larkish fun, but it was a cartoon: computer-driven artifice, from start to finish. At no time did we think Dwayne Johnson was in danger. Not so with Cruise, and his increasingly legendary Mission stunts. Safety straps and concealed rigging notwithstanding, there’s no question of his physical involvement in crazed, hazardous stuff ... in part because it’s clearly a point of pride. Like Burt Lancaster back in the day, Cruise wants to match or exceed the authentic antics of his various stunt colleagues.

Unfortunately, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie front-loads this newest film with all the best action scenes, resulting in a noticeable letdown during the third act. Ghost Protocol climaxed, midway, with the dog-nuts Burj Khalifa climb, but that film’s director (Brad Bird) wisely held an equally audacious sequence for the finale: the breathtaking chase amid the shuffling vehicles in a multi-story car park.

McQuarrie, apparently wanting to suck us in right away, opens with the perilous stunt that has made media waves for the past several months, with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt hanging for dear life on the exterior of an A400 Airbus, as it taxis down a runway and then roars into the sky.

It’s just like the best James Bond pre-credits sequences — the one opening The World Is Not Enough being a personal favorite — and, no question, a true attention-getter.

Alas, Hunt’s successful completion of this mission counts for little back home, where CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin, appropriately smug and arrogant) has brought his displeasure with the grandstanding Impossible Missions Force (IMF) to Capitol Hill. One chill committee meeting later, despite objections from IMF newbie William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), the team is officially disbanded, and Hunley tasked with finding and arresting Ethan.


The timing couldn’t be worse, because Ethan has been on the trail of a shadowy, clandestine organization dubbed “The Syndicate,” which has been responsible for a series of large-scale terrorist acts, although never claiming credit for same. Ethan believes this “anti-IMF” to be run by one man, Moriarty-style, who seems bent on bringing down the entire structure of Western civilization.

Trouble is, Ethan has no idea who that person is, despite having once seen him under less-than-favorable circumstances (a clever, unsettling riff on the usual “Good evening, Mr. Hunt” mission briefing). Hunley couldn’t care less, insisting that Ethan has become paranoid, fabricated the whole conspiracy, and — worse yet — gone rogue and must be removed from the board ... by any means necessary.

Cue Ethan’s creation of a clandestine operation, gathering what has become his solid team: Brandt, Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames). Their goal to find the shadowy spider at the center of The Syndicate’s web is further complicated by the involvement of a highly capable woman — Rebecca Ferguson, as Ilsa — who seems to be in league with the bad guys ... except when it seems she isn’t.

Ethan’s rising admiration for her notwithstanding, can she be trusted?

The globe-trotting quest touches down in Austria, for an enthralling, cat-and-mouse pursuit in the Vienna Opera House, during a performance of Puccini’s Turandot: a gripping sequence — superbly edited by Eddie Hamilton — that includes an affectionate (and quite obvious) nod to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Even more suspenseful, though, is the attempted heist that follows: this film’s signature “impossible mission,” which involves penetrating a hyper-secure, deep-water “vault” that houses computer command codes. It’s the ultimate ticking-clock sequence — always a highlight of the original TV show — made even more nail-biting by McQuarrie’s clever touches (i.e. the stuff that goes wrong), and our instinctive revulsion toward death by drowning.

Cruise has become solidly comfortable with his Ethan Hunt persona: completely credible during the audacious action scenes, and equally adept at the quieter stuff, as with his half-smiles and “Who, me?” double-takes. He leaves most of the actual quips to Pegg, whose Benji is the team’s sorta-kinda class clown (or, perhaps more accurately, the constantly tetchy Dr. McCoy to Star Trek’s James T. Kirk).

Benji’s feelings of insignificance notwithstanding, he rises to the occasion here, eventually confronting the folly of front-line service.

Rhames is a hoot as the quietly capable Luther, suggesting ample menace with a calculated gaze of warning. Ferguson is a constant delight — and mystery — as the impressively skilled Ilsa, every bit as physically resourceful as Ethan.

Renner, sadly, remains underused. Brandt is present mostly as a foil for Baldwin, and the voice of reason arguing against Ethan’s increasingly crazy plans. Renner handles those responsibilities just fine, but McQuarrie should have given him more to do.

Simon McBurney is suitably officious as a high-ranking British intelligence officer, and Tom Hollander has a droll turn as the British prime minister. Hermione Corfield makes the most of her brief appearance as Ethan’s initial IMF contact, and Jens Hultén is quite scary as The Syndicate’s chief enforcer.

Joe Kraemer’s dynamic score is well used, amplifying action sequences and lending mood to quieter scenes. I’m particularly impressed by the way he interweaves elements of Lalo Schifrin’s iconic Mission Impossible theme with passages from Puccini’s opera.

All these highlights notwithstanding, we’re ultimately left with little more than talking heads during the anticlimactic finale. As clever as the chief villain has been, up to this point, he suddenly turns unacceptably and unbelievably stupid. Total scripting contrivance.

There’s no doubt that McQuarrie has become Cruise’s favorite scribe, having also written both Valkyrie and Jack Reacher. But I expected better of McQuarrie, who won a well-deserved Academy Award for his twisty script in 1995’s The Usual Suspects. Now, that was a story that built to a stylish, clever and crowd-pleasing finale.

As the guy calling the shots, though, he’s less accomplished. His directorial debut — 2000’s Way of the Gun, which he also wrote — may have displayed stylistic snap, but I attribute that more to cinematographer Dick Pope; the film itself is clumsy and unpalatable. No surprise that McQuarrie didn’t get another shot at directing until the aforementioned Jack Reacher came along, and that’s a sad, unsatisfying adaptation of author Lee Child’s modern, lone-wolf Sir Galahad (mostly because Cruise is simply wrong for the part).

As a director, then, McQuarrie lacks the balance and careful “build” that Brad Bird brought to Ghost Protocol. The result isn’t crippling, merely disappointing; as already mentioned, Rogue Nation has a lot going for it, and I’m sure it’ll be a hit.

But it could have been better. And I hope Cruise and Abrams bring Bird back, for the (inevitable, I’m sure) next installment.

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