After five films and two decades, the Mission: Impossible series has finally come into formation. Pieces of this have developed over the course of the series’ run, and they were finally (mostly) set into place by Brad Bird’s excellent Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Here, in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Tom Cruise and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie have doubled down on what worked with Ghost Protocol while giving Rogue Nation its own distinctive personality, complete with hard-hitting action, humor, signature set pieces, and a brilliant performance from series newcomer Rebecca Ferguson.
As hinted at in Ghost Protocol‘s ending, Rogue Nation finds Ethan Hunt (Cruise) on the hunt for The Syndicate, a shadow organization responsible for a series of terrorist attacks under the direction of a mysterious man (Sean Harris). The IMF is still dealing with the ramifications of the invocation of Ghost Protocol, and CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) wants to formally end the organization, bringing its remnants under his purview. Hunley also believes that The Syndicate is an invention of Hunt’s, created so he can play hero to attacks he orchestrates. This leaves Hunt on the run from the government once again, with only one way to clear his name: expose and bring down The Syndicate. But with his colleagues stranded in the CIA, Hunt’s only ally is Syndicate agent Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), who may be a double agent.
Even though previous films in the series have put Hunt on a team, Ghost Protocol was the first to position Hunt as first among equals instead of first, period. That continues here, with the return of characters like Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) giving the film more of a connection to previous films than the series normally provides. It’s important, because it helps pull the series away from Ethan Hunt being superhuman in the way he tackles his missions. Here, there are connections to his teammates that weren’t shown before, and taking others into account means that Ethan thinks more about repercussions and ramifications. At least a bit.
Where Rogue Nation supercedes Ghost Protocol is in giving Hunt a co-lead. As much as Rogue Nation works to suggest that Hunt is a gambler when it comes to his success, it also works to keep audiences guessing about Faust’s true intentions. And with all due respect to the females in previous Mission: Impossible films (especially Ghost Protocol‘s Paula Patton, who is missed here), Rebecca Ferguson is by far the best inclusion of a woman in this series to date. Her confidence in her scenes with Cruise is palpable, and she easily sells the character’s intrigue. And to the film’s credit, Rogue Nation doesn’t try to create a romantic relationship between Hunt and Faust. They get more out of their shared sense of betrayal by those they trusted, and they both seem to want to do what’s right, whatever that might be.
Rogue Nation also keeps some of the signature parts of the franchise intact. There’s the requisite heist, the one-shot villain (though Harris does make his character more interesting than usual through sheer creepiness), the chase sequence, and at least one jaw-dropping stunt performed by Cruise that’s not achieved through CGI or green screen. It basically keeps things moving in the direction Ghost Protocol set up, while also incorporating elements from the earlier films in the series.
As a visual stylist, McQuarrie is the first director the series has had who doesn’t have a distinctive, auteur’s approach to the way the film looks. That ends up working in the film’s favor, though, because McQuarrie excels in delivering tactile stunts. You can practically feel each punch land. He also crafts a well-paced scene that takes place during an opera that delivers the series’ standard sense of mystery rather beautifully.
Coming at the opposite end of the season, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation shares a lot in common with this summer’s other great action film, Mad Max: Fury Road. Like that film, this one shows a franchise with plenty of life left in it, with room to create an intriguing female co-lead to boot. If the series can maintain this level of quality, we can only hope Cruise will continue to accept some missions.