Now Playing: ‘Mission: Impossible’ gets better with age in ‘Rogue Nation’

Douglas Markowitz

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-qBD17wwrQ?rel=0]

As “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” enters theaters, the 20-year-old spy franchise just now seems to be finding its voice.  After an excellent start and two average-to-terrible sequels, the Tom Cruise-starring spy series hit its stride with 2011’s “Ghost Protocol,” so far the most skillful, enjoyable entry. As if trying to top “Ghost Protocol’s” dizzying climb up the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world – this one has Cruise hanging onto the side of a plane in mid-takeoff. And that’s just the first five minutes.

Graphic by David Guerrero
Graphic by David Guerrero

From there, we meet the titular rogue nation: the Syndicate, an organization of ex-spies presumed missing or dead, committing acts of violence across the globe. With the Impossible Mission Force dissolved and absorbed into the CIA, Ethan Hunt (Cruise), with the help of teammates Benji (Simon Pegg), Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther (Ving Rhames), must prove their worth and uncover the conspiracy. Hunt also crosses paths with Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), a powerful agent whose loyalties are frequently in flux.

Here’s something else Cruise – who also produces – likes to keep in flux: each film has had a different director, sometimes leading to wild stylistic shifts that don’t always work well.  For “Rogue Nation,” he chose Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote “The Usual Suspects,” directed him in “Jack Reacher,” and does double duty here as writer and director.

Thankfully, the filmmakers realized they finally hit on a working formula with “Ghost Protocol,” so the only surprises here come from the twisty plot. Our team battles the Syndicate in London, goes on a motorcycle chase in Morocco and, in the film’s most remarkable set piece, spends a deadly night at the Vienna Opera.

“Rogue Nation” cements “Mission Impossible” comfortably in the middle of the Hollywood action landscape. These movies are fun and exciting but retain an air of suspense and twistiness. They’re not as bombastic and knowingly dumb as “Fast and Furious,” but not as stylish and sophisticated as James Bond. They’re a very rare kind of blockbuster, where the incredible things that Tom Cruise does onscreen retain danger and humanity. Most importantly, in a field full of indestructible superheroes, “Mission: Impossible” actually keeps us guessing as to whether the agents will make it out alive.

It’s no question that this franchise has gotten better with age, but what about its leading man? At 53, the actor once renowned for prestigious fare like “Rain Man” and “The Color of Money” has entered into a strange career phase as an action star. In films like the “M:I” franchise and last year’s “Edge of Tomorrow,” he performs incredible stunts that grab our attention not just because they’re ambitious and entertaining, but because he’s the one doing them. Tom Cruise famously does his own stunts, as the camerawork in “Rogue Nation” frequently reminds us. We see both his face and the quickly receding ground as he hangs onto that plane. It would seem gimmicky if it didn’t make our jaws drop.

Tom Cruise has always been hard to read. His is the ultimate movie star persona: an incredibly attractive man with no characteristics (scientology aside). He commits to his roles, but never blends into them completely. He’s always, in one way or another, still Tom Cruise. Even when he’s Ethan Hunt, or Maverick in “Top Gun,” or even whatever the hell he was in “Eyes Wide Shut,” he’s still Tom Cruise. This doesn’t really help him off screen. In interviews, such as one last week on “The Daily Show,” he comes off as robotic, inhuman, a male Stepford wife laughing and smiling at everything being said and contributing nothing to the conversation. It’s almost as if the only way he knows how to interact with people is through movies, or that he’s afraid of compromising his onscreen persona.

That’s where he is right now. Just as Ethan Hunt will do whatever it takes to finish the mission, so will Tom Cruise, the consummate entertainer, do whatever he needs to give us a show we won’t forget. But can he keep it up? If it means more movies like “Rogue Nation,” I certainly hope so.

For more information or news tips, or if you see an error in this story, contact n[email protected]