Film

Review: ‘Rogue Nation’ Makes The Mission Of Enjoying Tom Cruise Less Impossible

Tom Cruise has learned that being laughed at can sometimes mean being liked.

A globe-trotting spy thriller with the brisk pace and the visual wit of a Looney Tunes cartoon, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is proof that, whatever his past upsets, Tom Cruise has his career well in hand. The fifth film in the Mission Impossible franchise — revolving around the adventures of the improbably named and ultra-secret Impossible Mission Force — Rogue Nation finds Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt reunited with a random assortment of team members from previous films (including Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Ving Rhames) as they chase down a shadowy terrorist organisation.

The team is less important than Hunt himself though — for part of the film he just is the IMF after a grumpy CIA Director (played by Alec Baldwin) calls on the US government to shut the Impossible Mission Force down, leaving him out in the cold. As usual, the film is only loosely connected to the previous entries in the series (Baldwin’s boss is pissed at the IMF in part because they broke into the CIA back in the day, a sly call-back to the franchise’s first entry way back in 1996): characters come and go, and even the IMF seems to change structure with each film, but Hunt stays the same. It’s all about Cruise.

Thankfully, he’s smart about choosing his collaborators. This film reunites him with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, who helmed the underrated low-key pulp thriller Jack Reacher in 2012, and for the most part it does not disappoint.

Action and Anticipation

With Reacher, McQuarrie proved that he has a craftsman-like expertise in the mechanics of action set pieces equal to any other blockbuster director working today, and Rogue Nation continues to exercise that skill. The film’s big action moments all hit the sweet spot at the vector of narrative clarity, visual elegance, and practical stunts.

Whereas Reacher was small scale, Rogue Nation really allows McQuarrie to stretch his gifts out on a big canvas. The show-stopping trailer moment, which sees Cruise clinging desperately to the side of a plane as it jets off from the runway, isn’t even the climax of the film. In fact, it’s plonked right up there at the start, serving as a rapid prologue to reintroduce Cruise’s IMF team — and, of course, Hunt’s superhuman determination.

Later, McQuarrie pulls out a lavishly staged shootout between competing assassins at a Viennese opera house, and a high-speed chase through the streets of Morocco. All of this is accomplished with what looks to be Cruise’s favoured lack of CGI-enhanced spectacle — just real cars, real motorbikes, and real bodies slamming through windows.

Also this. Never forget this.

But it’s not exactly tense. In fact, there’s not a whole lot of drama to the film. Hunt being Hunt — and Cruise being Cruise — the outcome is never really in doubt, and the emotional stakes are low. That means the film is less of a thrill-ride and more of a gentle rollercoaster: one that holds the audience in a pleasant state of anticipation while we wait to see how it will all shake out in Hunt’s favour.

To its credit, the film spins some thematic gold out of this hay. The villain this time around is a rogue ex-spy who heads up a shadowy outfit called The Syndicate: a secretive organisation sowing chaos worldwide. This guy’s shtick is a preternatural gift for predicting the behaviour of his rivals — he says his “weapon of choice” is “human nature” — which guarantees his ability to manipulate them to his own ends.

What this means in practice is that the film gets to have fun with all the various implausibilities of the spy genre without the narrative going off the rails. Gadgets, disguises, improbable double, triple, and quadruple-crosses: all of this is anticipated by the film’s villain meaning the audience never has to worry about how unlikely it all is. It’s anticipated by Hunt too as the climax, naturally, comes down to a contest between the two to see who is better at manipulating the other.

In fact, the movie goes to an inordinate effort to hammer home the idea that Hunt is superhumanly capable and never, ever wrong. This is never more clear than late in the piece, as Baldwin’s CIA director stands in front of a high-level politician who has become a target of the renegade Hunt. Summoning the full force of his mahogany purr, he unleashes one of the most amusingly indulgent speeches ever delivered on the subject of a film’s protagonist/leading man. Its key theme is the absolute impossibility of outplaying Hunt once he’s set his mind on accomplishing something. Baldwin calls him a force of “destiny”.

It’s almost like Cruise himself hates the idea of ever being in error. His mission is control.

Mission Accomplished

This is fitting, since the story of Cruise’s career over the last decade or so has been a loss of control after a handful of PR disasters in the mid-2000s famously disrupted his carefully honed public image. There was the couch jumping, the mansplaining of the ‘history’ of psychiatry to Matt Lauer on The Today Show, and, of course, that whole Scientology business.

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Cruise has managed to crawl back from these upsets, shepherding the MI franchise through three new entries with well-chosen collaborators. 2006’s Mission Impossible 3 gave current blockbuster-maven JJ Abrams his first gig as a feature director, while 2011’s well-received Ghost Protocol gave animation genius Brad Bird his first foray into live action.

The public doesn’t quite love him, but it’s getting easier to like him. Part of this is just that he’s getting older. He no longer looks like a dead-eyed shark in human form and forming a few wrinkles has done a lot to soften his bullish self-confidence. Another part is that he’s gotten better about relinquishing control, albeit strategically. He seems more comfortable with the idea of audiences laughing at him. His cameo in Ben Stiller’s 2008 Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder, as a grotesquely profane movie mogul, did a lot to prove the notion that Cruise can be funny, in an aggressive kind of way.

His most recent starring roles have expanded on this idea by allowing him to become the object of a special kind of joke. Edge of Tomorrow may have been a (undeserved) commercial disappointment, but its critical reception proved one thing: people love to see Cruise get fucked up.

The gimmick of that film — which saw Cruise’s cowardly military recruiter getting Groundhog Day-esque powers from an invading alien species, allowing him to relive the same battle over and over again — had Cruise getting bruised, beaten, and murdered in a variety of amusing ways. While being crushed by a truck, ripped to shreds by an alien, and shot in the head by Emily Blunt, there was a Wile-E-Coyote aspect to his ability to take punishment. It was funny, and it helped to undercut his otherwise ultra-competent persona. Cruise also got to perfect a kind of pained reaction shot to whatever disaster was coming his way; a ‘can you believe this shit?’ grimace.

Rogue Nation continues in a similar vein: Hunt gets drowned, tossed off a motorbike, dragged out of a plane, and the film gets some solid laughs out of the sight of its protagonist pushed to some unlikely physical extreme. It feels like, at 53, Tom Cruise has finally found a way to have his cake and eat it too: to be the best, most unstoppable guy on screen and still be likeable.

Whatever his mission, its success is less impossible than inevitable, but it’s still fun along the way.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is in cinemas August 6.

James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. His work has been found in The Big Issue, Meanland, Screen Machine, and the Meanjin blog. He tweets from @jamesrobdouglas.