One last Impossible mission?
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION (PG13)
Action/132 minutes/Opens today
Secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is on a mission, possibly his last.
His clandestine unit, the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), is gone, dissolved after a probe led by Central Intelligence Agency bigwig Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) found its methods too unorthodox and lack of oversight too risky.
His former colleagues - in the case of William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) - now work with the CIA to bring him in or - in the case of Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) - have resigned.
Worst of all, Hunt thinks there is a terror organisation - the Syndicate, made up of presumed-dead or disavowed spies - wreaking havoc across the globe, but no one believes him.
As an international fugitive, the veteran spy must assemble his team to bring down the Syndicate before it is too late.
THE first Mission: Impossible film came out in 1996, starring Cruise as a protege of Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), the team leader from the TV series. Nineteen years on and at the age of 53, Cruise returns to one of his defining roles, his American spook now a living legend among the cloak-and-dagger community.
Each largely standalone title gets a different director and treatment, something Cruise decided early on, according to the production notes. Brian De Palma filled the first with plot twists; John Woo imbued the second with his signature slow-motion gunplay; J. J. Abrams began the third in medias res, like his pilot for Lost; and Brad Bird had his animated opening credits to the fourth pay homage to the show's intro.
Christopher McQuarrie - who worked as a co-writer on Valkyrie and Edge Of Tomorrow and director on Jack Reacher, all starring Cruise - helms this fifth instalment competently, without any distinguishing style or motifs.
His script, based on a story by Iron Man 3 co-writer Drew Pearce, paints Hunt and IMF as relics past their prime. Perhaps this is a meta commentary on the series' brand of old-school skulduggery facing obsolescence amid grittier, more "realistic" espionage flicks like those of Daniel Craig's James Bond and Matt Damon's Jason Bourne.
In this respect, the film does little to push the envelope, at least narratively, which could be a good or bad thing depending on how much one likes the series' calling cards. There is the mission brief complete with self-destruct sequence, a car chase, a break-in into a seemingly impenetrable building, a latex-mask impersonation, a gunfight or two and an assassination attempt at an opera that brings to mind that of The Living Daylights (1987). Then there is the arsenal of near-future gadgets, like a skeleton key and laptop with an e-paper display.
Hunt and company travel to Belarus, Morocco and, for a brief moment, Malaysia to take on IMF's antithesis: the Syndicate. Hunt believes this Spectre-like organisation is responsible for terrorist attacks and catastrophes, including a ripped-from-the-headlines "missing plane over Indonesia". Bureaucrat Hunley thinks he has gone off the deep end, a renegade who is "both arsonist and firefighter".
The film toys with this notion that Hunt is delusional, but there is never any real doubt whether his theory proves true.
A more beguiling aspect is the allegiance of a comely Syndicate member played by Rebecca Ferguson. The relatively unknown Hercules (2014) star describes her character, Ilsa Faust, as the "feminine version" of Hunt, and she pulls off the role convincingly. Close-quarter combat skills, check. Killer fashion sense, check. Cool surname, triple check.
The mastermind behind the Syndicate is played with calculated menace by a clean-shaven, bespectacled Sean Harris. His shadowy linchpin is a formidable adversary, the evil counterpart to Hunt's noble spy who knows all the tricks in the book. But, like Hunt's allies Brandt and Stickell, he does not have much to say or do until the end of the film.
Thankfully, Cruise, Ferguson and Pegg carry the film with their witty banter and visceral action setpieces, mostly done without stunt doubles, visual effects nor green screens.
Yes, Cruise really did cling to an A-400 plane as it took off - not once, but eight times to nail the shot. He also took free-diving lessons, training to hold his breath for several minutes for a nail-biting sequence inside the Torus, an underwater vault.
That was also him racing a BMW M3 sedan through narrow alleys with Pegg riding shotgun, and later barrelling up the Atlas Mountains on an S1000RR sports bike. Even Ferguson, who has a fear of heights, did 40 takes of a 23m drop down the side of the Vienna State Opera House.
This dedication to action realism is refreshing in a summer filled with computer-generated artifice. No amount of pixel wizardry can create the vicarious thrill of practical stuntwork, and there is immense catharsis in seeing Hunt and friends escape perilous situations by the skin of their teeth.
In fact, the much-touted plane stunt kicks off the movie, an audacious move that promises more spectacle and mostly delivers. Quick pacing and shocking twists keep the suspense burning like a lit fuse, but it eventually fizzles out in a ho-hum showdown, although the denouement has poetic justice.
Amid the death-defying shenanigans, there is a sense of mortality and finality running through the film. For years, Cruise and his debonair daredevil have been playing a game of chicken with the Grim Reaper. At one point, Dunn tearfully warns Hunt: "One day, you're going to take it too far."
But for a franchise that rides on both the central protagonist and the actor who plays him achieving the impossible, pushing one's luck is par for the course. Whether it is saving the world or captivating moviegoers, risking life and limb is a mission Cruise and his invincible hero are willing to accept.
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