‘Rogue Nation’: Best I.M.F. film ever

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For Digital First Media

Back in 1996, Tom Cruise was already a successful actor. He had made his mark in “Risky Business,” then been in such films as “Top Gun,” “The Color of Money” (opposite Paul Newman), “Rain Man” (opposite Dustin Hoffman), “Born on the Fourth of July,” “A Few Good Men” (with a pivotal late film meltdown by Jack Nicholson) and “Interview with the Vampire.” Cruise had proven himself to be a versatile actor with a string of hits, which reflected his considerable marquee value.

What would it take for Cruise to buttress his status as an international superstar? He and his producing partner, Paula Wagner, decided that Cruise needed an action franchise of his very own. Rather than creating their own property, they resurrected “Mission: Impossible,” a successful television series of a bygone era.

There was an immediate problem. The “Mission: Impossible” had involved an ensemble cast with its nominal team leader being a mere component. The simple solution was to rejigger the formula. Cruise would portray Ethan Hunt, a newly created character, who was not just a glorified administrative supervisor of the I.M.F. He was a bad ass super-agent and the definitive focus of each film. The other members of the I.M.F. would be reduced to supporting roles in the narrative scheme.

The decision to pick “Mission: Impossible” as his personal vehicle has served Cruise well. The first four films in the franchise have made more than two billion dollars in worldwide box office. That’s not just an impressive performance for a quartet of films, it exceeds the annual GDP of some countries.

Despite this box office history, some pessimists suggested that “Rogue Nation” would have an uphill battle to repeat the success of its predecessors. Hadn’t all the potential plot lines been exhausted? At 53, hadn’t Cruise aged out of the role?

Paramount was unphased by such Negative Nancies. It will unveil “Rogue Nation” on an estimated 3,800 standard screens. It is also scheduled to be on about 367 IMAX screens in the U.S. and another 133 abroad. A huge marketing budget has resulted in a seemingly ubiquitous campaign to promote the film.

So – does the film measure up to all the advance hype? The simple answer is a resounding yes!

The film commences with a ballyhooed scene that is prominently featured in some posters and teaser trailers. A military cargo plane, manned by Chechen separatists and transporting lethal nerve gas, is about to take off. Ethan (Cruise) gamely leaps onto the wing of the plane and hangs on as it ascends skyward. Cruise is well-known for his disdain for the excessive use of CGI. As a consequence, the vignette exudes a sense of realism. It is a stunning set piece that conclusively refutes any suggestions that Cruise is too old for the part. He amply displays that he still has all the makings of a convincing action hero.

Of course, having such a scene at the outset of a film is a risky proposition. Front-end loading such a spectacular scene might dramatically eclipse the subsequent text of the film and leave the audience disappointed. No worries – this is just the first of a succession of eye-popping stunts that persistently pop up throughout the movie.  Viewers will be treated to an escape from a torture cell, an elaborate fight scene set in the suspended rafters of a performance of Puccini’s “Turandot” at the Vienna State Opera, a complicated underwater task, a motorcycle chase through Morocco, and an exciting ending.

Despite his derring do, Ethan’s I.M.F. unit is disbanded. The Kremlin has been bombed and the I.M.F. has speciously been blamed for it. The head of the C.I.A., Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), testifies before a closed door meeting of a Senate select oversight committee.  He angrily denounces the I.M.F. as being out of control and detrimental to U.S. national interests.  Hunley claims that the I.M.F. has confabulated the existence of a rival agency, the so-called Syndicate. According to Hunley, this is an apocryphal entity that been invented by the I.M.F. to justify their machinations.  As a result of these castigations, the I.M.F. is defunded and officially disbanded.

Two members of the I.M.F., analyst, William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and electronics wizard, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), are relegated to desk duty at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley. They feign allegiance to Hunley, who is trying to track down and terminate Ethan with prejudice.

However, Ethan discovers proof that the Syndicate does indeed exist. They are the so-called rogue nation of the film’s title. Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) is a clean-cut, bespeckled fellow, who looks totally innocuous, more like a nerdish accountant than a super-villain. However, he runs the Syndicate, which is dedicated to the destruction of the I.M.F. and the disruption of the extant world order. Lane has assembled a cadre of skilled operatives, who are poised to implement his nefarious agenda. Ethan must reassemble the team, by convincing William and Benji to rejoin him, while bringing Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) out of retirement.

Along the way, Ethan encounters Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). She is Ethan’s female analogue. As Ilsa repeatedly demonstrates, she is smart, super-skilled, and resourceful. But can she be trusted? Is Ilsa loyal to Lane, a mole in his organization as she insists, or something altogether different? How can Ethan decide? Will his sound judgment be subverted by the obvious chemistry between him and Ilsa? As if to evoke this psychosexual tension, several collaborative stunts with Ethan and Ilsa involve a posture that is suggestive of coitus.

Whatever you think of Cruise’s off-screen shenanigans, he is tremendous in this film. As evidenced in a scene, in which his shirtless torso is displayed, despite being a middle-aged man, Cruise has been dedicated to maintaining his well-toned physique. He moves with the agility of a much younger man. As an actor, Cruise has perfected an appealing screen persona.

Swedish actress, Rebecca Ferguson, is best known for her role as Queen Elizabeth in the much-lauded British television mini-series, “The White Queen.” Here, she proves to be a worthy female co-protagonist. She exudes an enigmatic poise. Ferguson is also capable of the kinesthetic requirements of the role. At one juncture, her character dispatches several armed male assassins. Later, she battles a towering, knife-wielding foe, nicknamed the Bone Doctor (Jens Hulten). To my mind, the latter is the best action scene with a female character since Angelina Jolie’s dramatic leap in the denouement of “Salt.”

Several members of the supporting cast also shine. In the post-romantic lead stage of his career, Baldwin continues to excel, here as a blowhard governmental official with a personal grudge against Ethan. As the villain, Sean Harris effects a reedy voice and an effete manner that belie his actual malevolence. Although his role is circumscribed, Simon McBurney (the film version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) does a delicious turn as the head of Britain’s MI-5.

This is the first time that a “Mission: Impossible” film has been helmed by its sole screenwriter. Christopher McQuarrie, has done a superb job in both capacities. He has crafted an intelligent screenplay and mounted a well-paced, action-packed feature. McQuarrie has many scripts in his résumé, including the Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Unusual Suspects.” However, this is only the third feature film that he has helmed. It makes his accomplished direction of a challenging production particularly noteworthy. He benefits enormously from Robert Elswit’s adroit camerawork, which is exciting, but remains easy to follow.

After four prior films over the course of nineteen years, you might expect that the “Mission: Impossible” franchise would be played out by now. However, “Rogue Nation” turns out to be the best I.M.F. film ever.

***1/2 PG-13 (for for sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity) 131 minutes. Paramount Pictures

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

A screen capture from the film "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOW_azQbOjw

A screen capture from the film “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOW_azQbOjw

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