Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation review: agent in place

The opening scene of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is the entire film in a nutshell, and that's not an entirely great thing.

Rogue Nation is the fifth Mission: Impossible film, which finds the series rolling into its second decade. It's a possible formula for tired action movie cliches, but previous Mission: Impossible films have avoided many of the pitfalls of predictable summer action movies in part through inspired directorial choices like Brian De Palma, John Woo, and J.J. Abrams. 2011's Ghost Protocol was helmed by Pixar-alum Brad Bird, who set a bold new precedent for Mission: Impossible with spectacular setpiece after setpiece.

These were directors who were known quantities with strong visual sensibilities, and they set an incredibly high bar that, for whatever reason, Rogue Nation can't quite clear. It's a serviceable summer action movie, but the ambition that's driven even the most forgettable Mission: Impossible films is nowhere to be found here.

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As Rogue Nation opens, Tom Cruise's Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt is searching the globe for evidence of the Syndicate, a mysterious "anti-IMF" responsible for targeted assassinations and acts of terror around the world. However, in response to the opening events of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol — which left the Kremlin in ruins — the US government disbands the IMF, leaving Hunt alone and disavowed.

If that sounds familiar, it should, because Hunt or the IMF have been disavowed or disbanded in three previous Mission: Impossible films. Additionally, there's a new femme fatale in the form of potential Syndicate agent Ilsa Faust (relative Swedish newcomer Rebecca Ferguson) who - and stop me if you've heard this one - may or may not be able to be trusted and may or may not be playing Ethan.

Franchise regulars feel more superfluous than ever

Mission: Impossible movies have generally featured complicated plots full of twists and turns, and not always for the better. Rogue Nation goes the other way, with even less interesting results. It's familiar and predictable, smaller in scope and scale than any of its predecessors. Cruise has always been the series' driving force, but he's doing more heavy lifting than ever before here, against a strangely small and largely inconsequential supporting cast.

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Franchise regulars like Simon Pegg's Benji Dunn and Ving Rhames' Luther Stickell are present, but feel more superfluous than ever, and Jeremy Renner's Brandt serves as a barely-seen straight man. Ferguson does an admirable job as Faust given how little the script gives her to work with, and Alec Baldwin does even less — his role, CIA Director Alan Hunley, exists more as a plot mover than an actual character.

The resultant focus on Cruise isn't especially successful. Yes, Rogue Nation opens with a daring display of Cruise's commitment to doing as many of his own stunts as possible as the star clings to the outside of a (real) cargo plane making a (real) take-off and giving me some (real) moments of escalated heartbeat as someone with flying issues. There's also an underwater sequence where Cruise is reputed to have spent multiple minutes holding his breath (though this isn't a new thing for the star, with a more tense scene in 2002's Minority Report coming to mind).

But in the best Mission: Impossible movies these displays of Cruise's either disregard for his own safety or complete confidence in his status as an anointed god-person have a bearing on a larger, plot-driven setpiece. Ghost Protocol's Burj Khalifa-scaling sequence in Dubai was the practical climax of the film. It was a suspenseful scene with multiple characters, and while the main focus was Ethan Hunt's ability to be the apex of super spyness, there was a sense of active, life-and-death consequences for almost everyone involved. Rogue Nation's moments just feel smaller, with fewer lives at stake, and less long-term build-up and investment.

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The titular Rogue Nation is similarly underwhelming. Where 2006's Mission: Impossible III featured a scenery-chewing performance from Phillip Seymour-Hoffman in the role of antagonist, Rogue Nation never seems to figure out what Sean Harris's villain Solomon Lane is supposed to be, vacillating between homicidal sociopath and robotic sadist. Harris does what he can, but the script never makes him an effective foil for Cruise in the few scenes in which they appear together. The film gestures at potential conspiracies and double crosses but never commits to anything.

It's also worth mentioning that as the only woman in the film with a name you actually hear, Ferguson is forced to pick up all the sex-appeal slack Rogue Nation leaves elsewhere, which feels awkward given how little chemistry or tension Cruise and Ferguson manage. That said, a climactic fight sequence is handed to Ferguson, one of several action sequences that she carries competently.

But that's the proverbial nutshell, the precedent Rogue Nation establishes early on. It's not a stupid movie, or the worst action movie you'll see this summer. But as just a competent action film, it fails to live up to the expectations Mission: Impossible has established over almost 20 years of boundary-pushing summer spectacle.