‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’ is blissfully absurd action romp

By Nathan Frontiero


There’s a concept in improv and sketch comedy called the “game.” It’s the particular aspect of a given scene that’s unique, often strange and (obviously) funny. The improviser or writer can explore the game at its current “level” or “heighten” it by adding something new that makes the game stranger, more unique and funnier. The goal in either case is to end the scene at the top of its game, its biggest laugh, a place from which it can go no further. The game in “Rogue Nation” is making the impossible possible.

The latest “Mission: Impossible” heightens this game for two hours straight. The movie made me laugh in giddy surprise every time it expanded my notion of what the agents are capable of. It continuously challenges the characters and finds new ways for them to overcome what look like insurmountable obstacles. I believed wholeheartedly by the film’s climax that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) could do anything. Each narrative twist was equal parts unexpected, hilarious and satisfying.

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie raises the stakes while decreasing the scale of the action. In the film’s opening, Hunt leaps onto the side of a plane as it takes off. By the ending, all of the characters are on foot and fighting hand-to-hand. McQuarrie and cinematographer Robert Elswit accomplish this transition by honing the lens in on the agents and their amazing feats with each successive scene. In one terrific sequence, Ethan chases Ilsa on motorcycle as the camera films from wheel-level. The action becomes more exhilarating as it gets closer in the frame.

McQuarrie doesn’t let plot get in the way of a good story. His script moves breezily with a mix of action and wit, providing just enough information to orient the general viewer. “Rogue Nation” follows Hunt as he tries to bring down an elusive criminal organization called the Syndicate. CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) doesn’t believe the Syndicate exists. He wants to shut down Hunt and the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) that employs him.

In the midst of this international game of cat-and-mouse, Hunt meets his match: Ilsa Faust, a former MI6 operative who helps him escape Syndicate capture early in the film. They have a priceless meeting that occurs as they’re fighting off henchmen. Their combat styles complement each other perfectly. “We’ve never met before, right?” Hunt asks.

Indeed, the two agents are a remarkable pairing. They’re sleek enough to slip in and out of each other’s paths at a moment’s notice. Each is also incredibly strong – Ilsa snaps a man’s neck between her thighs in one scene, Hunt heaves himself up and off a pole he’s handcuffed to in another. They are brunettes who hide their intentions behind steely blue eyes. And they each clean up gorgeously for a night of espionage at the opera. You might call them the star-crossed lovers of the spy world, although the bond that develops between them is platonic.

Faust seems to ally herself with Hunt’s cause, but as the literary reference in her surname suggests, she’s also made a deal with the devil. Her work for British intelligence has given way to a contract with Syndicate leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), whose chilly inflections fittingly evoke the hissing of a biblical serpent. The question of Ilsa’s loyalty lends her character arc a familiar intrigue. She’s thrilling to watch because we never fully know her agenda. Rebecca Ferguson captures that enigmatic aura perfectly.

Having no prior knowledge of “Mission: Impossible” aside from the iconic brassy theme music and minute details absorbed through cultural osmosis, watching “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” marked the most blissfully absurd experience I have ever had at a movie theater. “Rogue Nation” is the fifth entry in this franchise, but the film is so self-contained that it feels like the first chapter in a brand new book. It’s a freewheeling spectacle that requires no foreknowledge. It welcomes you in with open arms.

There’s a great moment at the beginning of the film in which the CIA director disparages the IMF as an archaic organization. It’s an amusing bit of meta-commentary – a nod to the fact that these movies and their leading man are getting old. But I doubt that age and originality are going to be issues for this series anytime soon. With its brilliant ballet of humor and chaos, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” proves that the possibilities are endless.

 Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NathanFrontiero.