In-N-Out Burger has the well-earned reputation of being the best fast food joint around. The restaurant has a simple menu consisting of only the most basic fast food fare: you can get a burger with a varying number of patties and simple toppings, french fries as a side, and either a soda or milk shake. What separates In-N-Out from McDonalds and Carl’s Jr. is its dedication to making each burger to order and using only the freshest ingredients. When you go to In-N-Out, you are going to a fast food restaurant, but the food that you eat stands head and shoulders above what you get when you patronize any other such establishment. The food isn’t fancy, but it’s the best quick burger you are going to be able to find.
The Mission: Impossible movies are the filmic equivalent of In-N-Out Burger. They are action movies with plots so basic that any one could serve as the primordial mold for the genre itself, they feature a core cast list of big name stars orbited by a rotating cast of B-listers, and their soundtrack is as iconic as it is simple. Yet the makers use only the finest ingredients, ensuring that the films rise above the level of generic Blockbuster pablum and into an almost Platonic state wherein they exist as something more than any single popcorn action movie could ever be. They do not go in for the ironic, “so good it’s bad” style of the latter Fast and Furious films, nor do they bother subverting genre cliches ala Crank. They are clean, simple action movies and that’s all they’re trying to be.
Which makes reviewing Rogue Nation a difficult proposition. The movie is less a film than it is an experience, a temporally-contiguous series of exciting set pieces that top one another in terms of inventiveness. Much like its predecessor, Rogue Nation features one set piece that is a true highlight: instead of trying to top Ghost Protocol’s wonderful sandstorm sequence (which was conducted by master director Brad Bird), Christopher McQuarrie sprinkles his central action scene with a number of comedic reveals that each ratchet up the tension. Although not quite as memorable or daring as the Burj Khalifa climb, Rogue Nation’s opera house sequence is one of the best action scenes of the year, which, given that Mad Max: Fury Road came out a mere three months ago, is a true compliment.
Tom Cruise is once again at the helm playing the oddly sexless Ethan Hunt for the fifth time. Jeremy Renner and Alec Baldwin play dueling espionage bureaucrats, though Baldwin is barely on screen long enough for his role to rise much above cameo. Ving Rhames is back because why the hell not. Simon Pegg’s casting is the saddest of all, with his return as comedic relief/tech support geek Benji confirming that he has truly sunk to being a Hollywood butt boy, always the bridesmaid but never the leading man he so desperately desires to be (an an aside: Simon Pegg’s career outside of Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz is tragic, the portrait of an actor caught in a series of terrible movies in which his name is often the only bankable factor. His role in The World’s End shows that even Edgar Wright has turned on him somewhat, although no actor got out of that movie unscathed). And Ghost Protocol’s female lead has been swapped out for a new one like a dead battery, with her replacement Rebecca Ferguson playing double (triple?) agent Ilsa Faust in the closest thing this movie has to a woman character.
The relationship between Hunt and Faust is the most disappointing part of Rogue Nation. Faust has infiltrated a group of rogue espionage agents who are bent on committing acts of terror for ideological and/or financial advancement and Hunt is the only person who is able to get her out of her situation. There are numerous scenes in which Ilsa helps Ethan or Ethan helps Ilsa, and their storyline culminates in her offering him the opportunity for both of them to just walk away from the espionage game together, go start a new life as whoever they want to be. Yet at no point does anything resembling human attraction play into their relationship. Two of the best-looking people on the planet who have almost everything in common are repeatedly put in intimate and exciting situations and yet never once does any hint of sexual tension appear. While I’m not a fan of shoehorning romance into every film, this movie crafts what would be a completely believable and in-character opportunity for these two to fall for one another and then doesn’t even mention it. If Tom Cruise could handle just such a relationship in Edge of Tomorrow, why couldn’t one be put in here? Even a simple diegetic acknowledgement that they weren’t attracted to one another would have been better than the weird avoidance we end up with.
The film also could have been about one set piece shorter. Like nearly all action movies, Rogue Nation loses steam somewhere near the end point, right around the time that archvillain Solomon Lane steps out from behind his computer screens. We get dueling duels, one being a knife fight between Faust and chief henchman Eastern European Torture Guy, the other a chase through the London streets, both of which we know the outcome of ahead of time (although the way in which Lane is caught is a mild pleasure). But this too is a remnant of the form that these films follow, not a flaw in the filmmaking. Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation is a worthy entry in the franchise that seems quite happy maintaining its position as a series of above-average action movies. It doesn’t try for anything daring or new, but it uses only the finest ingredients and ends up being an enjoyably forgettable film. It is an example of how to make franchise movies correctly: stick to what defines the franchise, don’t get lazy or greedy, and don’t try to make them into high art.