Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was a film with a, well, impossible mission (I couldn’t resist), but like the franchise’s main-man Ethan Hunt (always played by the charismatic and respectably committed Tom Cruise), it approached the mission like a challenge and went so far as to bask in the impossibility of it. Before 2011, the franchise had two outright duds and one competent action film, all vehicles for their respective director’s chosen style. Certainly, Brian De Palma was the most interesting of those directors, but his cynical stylistic demeanor was a poor, compromised fit for a fluffy action pic uninterested in seriously enveloping De Palma’s darker tendencies. The resulting film was a mess, and the two action-first follow-ups were hamstrung by general idiocy (the first sequel) and questionable directing (the second follow-up).
Ghost Protocol however, got it just right, inducing a fitful, blissful burst of off-the-cuff, ever-moving kinetics and visual wit in which every cog was perfectly calibrated for momentary but lasting joy. Bird’s history with candy-coated animated comedy and frenetic storytelling was a perfect fit for an endlessly animated film that never once required buffering. It had, primarily, a single purpose: to legitimize the franchise. The necessity of that purpose pushed Bird into high-tempo action, as though the weight of the franchise and the weight of his first live-action film, were calls to arms. Perhaps expectedly, Rogue Nation doesn’t quite match the manic vivacity of Ghost Protocol wholesale, but it is still apparent that this fifth film in the franchise has enough to prove. It doesn’t have to legitimize the franchise, but it has to prove that the franchise’s prior legitimization was no fluke, and director Christopher McQuarrie’s work does just. It is largely a remake of Ghost Protocol in style and tone if not in content or plot, but if it ain’t broke…
Anyway, embracing Rogue Nation is not without difficulty. It is, for one, far too plot-oriented and occasionally bogs down in global politics that belie the goofiness of the material. Rogue Nation is not meaningfully interested in debating the complexities of its conspiratorial attitude toward government spies and international refuge, and the film would be better if, like Ghost Protocol, it made no pretentious feigns toward “seriousness” and simply focused on the blissful high of its meat-and-potatoes action. The complicated narrative has Hunt (Cruise) ousted from American Intelligence along with his band of outsiders played by Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and a returning and imposing Ving Rhames.
They join forces with newfound all-sides-hitter Ilsa Faust played by Rebecca Ferguson (absolutely best in show at making the most out of this franchise’s limited view of female humanity), who has an in with the shadowy international disruption specialists The Syndicate (headed by Solomon Lane, played by Rich Harris, and with ties to the British government). The Syndicate is the very organization, which the American government does not believe exists, that Hunt and friends were shunned for hunting so viciously, but arriving at this point almost strands the film in the thickets of needless complication. The exposition isn’t a killing blow by any means, but in attempting to break from the sideshow Looney Tunes bravura of Ghost Protocol by introducing gravity to the context of the material, the film only cashes a check it can’t catch.
In every other way though, Rogue Nation matches or almost matches Ghost Protocol blow for blow as scorching gut-first entertainment, a true vanguard of classical action cinema distant from the antiseptic sheen of the mighty marvels clogging up the works with superhero doldrums month in and month out. McQuarrie, more a wayward craftsperson than an auteur like the other directors to tackle the franchise, has a veritable carnival of a time vandalizing the franchise’s history for his own pummeling action flick and generally wrecking the joint just enough for the action to come off as personality-filled and gloriously reckless. Moments of note abound, from a poetically gliding underwater sequence where the camera floats with the characters, to a low-to-the-ground, scabrous motorcycle chase, to the evocative symmetry in a pair of moments where characters pass out in a glass cage amidst smoke.
The standout, though, is arguably the standout of the franchise. Cruise infiltrates an opera in Vienna with the knowledge that an assassination will occur but without the knowledge of who the assassin is, and when several guns are pointed at the target, decisions have to be made. McQuarrie (with phenomenal cinematographer Robert Elswit in tow) directs the sequence with a flair for color that matches last year’s John Wick, and the whole sequence plays out with a foregrounded musical accompaniment that not only backs the visuals but entrances them. The sequence functions less as narrative than as abstract ballet of color and sound, and it almost matches the highs of this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road (the highs of that film being the entirety of it, of course) for bravura artistic radicalism and forward-thinking abandon. The film around this sequence never matches it again, but it operates at such a consistently anarchic register of bombast and frenetic movement that you can’t but look it in the face and acknowledge this oddly persistent, oddly late-blooming franchise once more.