Sunday, August 23, 2015

Cruise Leads All Star Team In "Mission: Impossible -- Rouge Nation"

Rebecca Ferguson provides an excellent sparing partner for Tom Cruise.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say it: Tom Cruise is the greatest action star of all time.

For some people, that statement is craziness, mostly because Cruise doesn’t have the physicality of Schawarzenegger or the innate toughness of Eastwood.

But just look at the films and tell me which other actor has a better body of work within the genre. I’d put the threesome of Collateral, Minority Report and Edge of Tomorrow (my review here) up against pretty much anything. Hell, even Cruise’s lower tier stuff – Jack Reacher, Oblivion (my review here), Knight and Day – would wipe the floor with the best many other action stars have to offer. And, I’ve said all of this without even including the trump card that would be the Mission: Impossible series, which recently became even more impressive with the release of the wonderful Mission: Impossible – Rouge Nation.

Right off the bat, Rouge Nation calls on Cruise’s greatest appeal as an action star – his reckless commitment. The focus of the film’s ad campaign has been the scene where Cruise hangs off of an Airbus A400M, and yet the stunt occurs minutes into the film, a little appetizer to jack up the audience. You could argue it's a superfluous scene, but really it's quite meaningful in how it sets up the film's meta narrative.

Just as Skyfall explored the relevance of James Bond and the MI6 in today's world, Rouge Nation questions the need for Ethan Hunt and the IMF. Early in the film, Alec Baldwin's CIA director insists Hunt is a reckless gambler and that the IMF is an extravagant, outdated organization that should be dissolved, but eventually he gets on board, saying "Ethan Hunt is the living embodiment of destiny."

That all might as well be a commentary on Cruise, a big-money superstar who is largely a remnant of a bygone era when movie stars were sustainably bankable. It's a different world now, but Cruise is still chugging along, wowing us with the real-world peril he puts himself in to sell these confections to audiences. There's a few cracks here and there, but he's mostly an ageless marvel, and he carries it all off with such precision, dedication and good humor.

The plot has something to do with The Syndicate, a rouge spy organization pulled right from the old TV show, but the specifics are pretty irrelevant. Like all Mission flicks, Rouge Nation simply revolves around Cruise needing to get some item (usually a list, code, or both) that's impossible to get. Differentiation comes down to the director at the helm, the team of cohorts working alongside Cruise, and the set pieces that prop the film up.

Christopher McQuarrie isn't nearly as definitive as the other directors to take a turn on this series, but I like what he does here, combining Brad Bird's jaunty tone (Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol) with Brian DePalma's Hitchcockian tension (Mission: Impossible). Like it's immediate predecessor, Rouge Nation continues the hard-right turn into romp territory, and, I'll just say that it's amazing how much comedy these last two movies have gotten out of Cruise's minimalism. Guy does so much with a shrug or a glance. Meanwhile, The set pieces live up to the high bar set by previous entries in the series. I have an affinity for the staging of the tense opera sequence, but the water scene at the center of the film is a doozy, up there with the very best the series has done.

But Rouge Nation really excels when it comes to the team, a veritable who's who of the series' bests. After sitting most of the last entry out, long-time sidekick Luther Stickel (Ving Rhames) is back in action, along with Benji (Simon Pegg) and Brandt (Jermey Renner). Renner gets less to do this time out (he's mostly comic relief alongside Baldwin or Rhames), but Pegg shines here as he takes another step toward basically becoming a co-lead in the series.

Paula Patton is the only main player from Ghost Protocol who isn't back because, you know, sexism. Fortunately, the trade off means we get a large dose of Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, an agent who may or may not be a loyal member of The Syndicate. Ferguson combines vulnerability and nerve into a fascinating package, giving the type of performance that makes you sit up and ask, "Who is this actor, and why aren't they in everything?" The relationship doesn't get full-on romantic (after that last scene in Ghost Protocol, it's still unclear where Hunt stands with his wife), but the actors have oodles of chemistry. At the film's end you're dying to see more of Ilsa, and I hope Cruise and his collaborators don't jettison Ferguson once they start breaking the story for the inevitable sixth entry in the series.

For what it's worth, Rouge Nation nestles right in at two on my list of favorite Mission flicks, right in between Ghost Protocol and the original. Honestly, it's hard for me to rank all but but the second film, which is decent enough, but definitely rates last. That's because these films are such finely-tuned entertainments. It's barely greenlit, and I'm already excited for the next one. A-