A sense of restrained resonance has been ingrained in the DNA of the spy sub-genre, owing much to its televisual, episodic nature. Of the twenty-three James Bond films released across fifty years, only the most recent ones featuring Daniel Craig have imposed an overlapping mythology. Prior to those, each installment focused on Bond stopping some major threat to the world or some significant population, but there’s always been the steady assumption that everything will be scrubbed clean by the film’s conclusion. The single major exception to that rule, when Bond’s new wife is abruptly and shockingly murdered at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was easily scrubbed away by George Lazenby’s departure after just one film. Bond can always be replaced, his in-peril world efficiently recycled for the next go. In spy films, everything only matters in the immediate moment, from one set piece to the next. Even the best spy films are defined by their action sequences, not necessarily who is participating in them or to what end.
Ethan Hunt, as played by Tom Cruise, while at once anomalous and inconsequential as a spy resource, is irreplaceable. At the start of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the latest in the globetrotting, gravity disregarding franchise, Hunt becomes ensconced in smoke, his face and person slowly obscured until he’s just a hand grasping the glass, evoking the helpless final gestures of Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. When we cut from this to a Senate oversight committee, heralded by Alec Baldwin’s CIA curmudgeon Hunley, disbanding the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) and disavowing Hunt, something greater than the threat of death or failure is at risk for Ethan. He is at risk of be erased, obscured and, most threateningly, replaced. From the radically death defying scene that opens this film onwards, though, it’s clear there’s no replacing Tom Cruise.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is defined by its unmistakable elements; everything that is just slightly particular, beyond imitation, about it, making it more than a simple duplication of prior thrills. The whole thrust of the film, plot wise, is an organization vaguely designed as “an anti-IMF”, so a sense of efficient, if morally dubious, replacement is overbearing for more than just Hunt. He is very quickly intercepted by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a mirror image of our ostensible lead, much in the same manner as Charlize Theron’s character in Mad Max: Fury Road. Ilsa slips easily into the film noir mode of femme fatale, but unlike the inevitably replenishing stream of Bond girls, she’s never demeaned into becoming a helpless romantic attachment to Ethan. She undeniably fills some fascination in Ethan, his first lines to her being “We haven’t met before, right?” By the time the brunette revives him with a defibrillator, wary devotees of the franchise will recognize Ethan’s palpable Déjà vu.
The noir influences go well beyond Ferguson’s femme fatale, embedded in its visual aesthetic through the unexpectedly thrilling collaboration of director Christopher McQuarrie, quantum-leaping ahead of the inert, charmless rabble of Jack Reacher, and D.P. Robert Elswit, carrying loaded noir know-how after the one-two punch of Inherent Vice and Nightcrawler last year. Even the cookie-cutter villain, this time embodied by the silky voice of a disturbingly clean-shaven Sean Harris, provides Ethan with his most palpable existential crisis yet. Ethan’s victories have often been pulled off through at least a shred of chance, but Harris’ Solomon Lane is not a beast of chaos, but rigorous, calculated control. No human element is unpredictable for him. Peoples’ emotional motivations are all too easily manipulated, and for a spy as openly expressive as Ethan, Lane is his biggest threat. Ilsa only remains fitfully in the game because of how unpredictable she keeps her interior life. Ferguson’s translucent eyes and unreadable poker smile build an emotional mystery Ethan can’t help but clearly obsess over.
The elusive emotional dynamics don’t simply make for excitingly deceptive drama. They fuel the action scenes in ways that feel fresh and utterly unexpected. The first true action sequence, a theatrically attenuated cat-and-mouse hunt at an opera production of Turandot, introduces all our major players while coherently aligning them on multiple planes of action. Each person, every unique physicality, no matter how minor, is given careful, attentive detail in how they move and how they fight. When the crescendo comes, with every facet of the scene brought into glorious unison, it’s the moment these characters begin to obsess over one another, and obsession is the life-blood of noir.
Every action sequence that follows is formally breathtaking in completely different ways, from an exhilarating underwater heist (the most thrilling exercise in weightlessness since Gravity) to a chase sequence designed to stop a corresponding chase sequence. It’s only towards the end that the action slow down, but not the intrigue and specificity of its twisty narrative. The characters may not slow down enough to notice how reflective the briefly quoted Rudyard Kipling poem, If—, is of their situations, but we do, even without Michael Caine reciting its importance ad nauseum.
Also akin to Mad Max: Fury Road, Ethan’s character, while balanced with Ilsa in terms of emotional crises, takes a noticeable backseat to her in the action sequences. After hanging for dear life on the side of a plane in the first five minutes, one should expect him to be somewhat depleted, but instead his greatest tactic in fighting the Syndicate is that which made him a target in the first place; his vitally present humanity and care for human life.
Rogue Nation cares just as deeply for its component human parts, however small a role they play this time. Simon Pegg solidifies his position as the most reliably loyal, adorably funny aspect of Ethan’s isolated life, essentially filling the role of feminine damsel than Rebecca Ferguson refuses to play. Meanwhile, after making a bid for Cruise’s lead status in Ghost Protocol, Jeremy Renner is ironically relegated to cog-in-the-machine status, working to keep the CIA happy while Hunt does the real action. If Rogue Nation steers the franchise towards an inevitable future without Cruise in it, it’s in the progressive realization that Cruise’s successor can’t be just a watered down version of him with the same essential white, straight, cisgender, male features. It wouldn’t be surprising, or at all disappointing, if the future looked a lot more like Rebecca Ferguson.