Hollywood’s most improbably venerable action franchise keeps on trucking… and jumping, and kicking.
Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny, and he has made you his mission.
–Alec Baldwin, to [REDACTED]
In my review of last year’s Edge of Tomorrow (which I loved so much I later put it in my end-of-year top 10), I poked some good-natured fun at Our Man Tom Cruise, and the mythology that he has so delicately constructed over the past three decades or so. I wrote that “sometimes, you need Tom Cruise to play the Tom Cruise part, because no one else can.” But that involves more than just awkwardly running away from explosions, or freaking people out with his crazy eyes: “Tom Cruise” is a complete character unlike any in modern moviemaking. But unlike most characters, he has only become more fun to watch as the years have gone by.
Cruise is 53 now, far too old to still be at the center of a run-and-gun, globetrotting stuntstravaganza like Mission: Impossible, yet he remains because we need him, even if we don’t know it. It is our appreciation that drives him, and it’s his desire to hold up his end of the bargain that makes him, as even his enemies say, one of the hardest-working men in show business. Each time out as Ethan Hunt has pushed Cruise the Man to his physical limits: in 2011’s Ghost Protocol, he memorably dangled off the side of the tallest building in the world. In Rogue Nation, for our pleasure, he dangles off the side of an airbus as it is taking off. For a waterlogged stunt later in the film, Cruise the Man trained himself to hold his breath for six minutes. That dedication — or is it madness? — is evident on screen: See how I bleed for my art, Cruise the Actor says to us, gazing up at us from his gladiatorial pit. See how I risk tens — hundreds! — of studio millions so you can see it is me, Tom Cruise, on this actual plane as it actually flies into the actual air. Even the film’s own marketing emphasized behind-the-scenes footage instead of actual footage: the separation between the fiction and the reality is as thin as a safety cable.
Cruise may be a lunatic, but he comes by it honestly. For all the controversy that surrounds his personal life, and the paparazzi that follow him like a sentient cloud of Thetans, you can never say that Cruise isn’t giving 100%. No, scratch that — for Tom Cruise, the cliche is true. 110%. And, after 30 years of building up his own image, he seems to be enjoying deflating it: in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, the cumbersomely punctuated latest installment of The Tom Cruise Experience, the Man is breaking free of the Myth. “I know who you are,” a young agent tells him at the beginning of the film. “Are the stories true?” Cruise (no, Hunt — no, Cruise) only smiles enigmatically, but it might as well be a wink to us: two hours later, he will have been battered, shot, drowned, and tumble-dried. Henchman will loom over him — and lo, Tom Cruise is indeed only 5 foot 7! Women will challenge him, but never to earn his affections — and lo, Tom Cruise is an asexual being! Allies will call him out for his single-minded, foolish risk-taking — and lo, Tom Cruise is CRAAAAAZY!
If you can’t find some enjoyment in that, even perversely, I’m not sure what else to say. Mission: Impossible the franchise only exists because of Tom Cruise, and it’s Cruise’s white-knuckled hand that has kept it going. Cruise is Mission: Impossible, and Mission: Impossible is Cruise. To his credit, he’s picked the right collaborators: with only one exception (the ludicrously dumb second film), each installment has been surprisingly good, and sometimes even better than good, thanks to smart directors like Brian De Palma and Brad Bird. Why? Because it’s well-crafted action filmmaking, with a megawatt star at the center who will do literally anything to ensure its success. I re-watched the whole series this week before seeing Rogue, and that’s the big takeaway: the mayhem is fun on its own, but it’s the meta Cruise-ness that elevates it.
Rogue Nation, written and directed by Christopher “The Usual Suspects” McQuarrie, is Cruise Distilled. Like the others, the plot is as unimportant as in a Bond film; what matters is that we are propelled from one wicked cool setpiece to the next, with some wisecracks along the way. But I’ll try, anyway: Alec Baldwin’s CIA boss has had enough of Cruise and IMF’s reckless shenanigans, and moves to shutter the division just as a mysterious organization known as “The Syndicate” is ramping up its attacks around the world. This inevitably leaves Cruise out in the cold, again, tangling with a beautiful English double agent (Rebecca Ferguson, The White Queen) and enlisting his only remaining friends — Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and Jeremy Renner — to stop the Syndicate’s turtlenecked leader (Sean Harris) before the CIA can stop Cruise. That’s all that’s worth knowing, really. It’s the how, or at least the crazy, stunt-y details of the how, that provides the fun.
McQuarrie, who wrote EoT’s screenplay and previously directed its star in the downbeat Jack Reacher, seems to have become something of the Cruise Muse, and is clever enough to have identified the best parts of the earlier films and combined them into one crowd-pleasing two hours and change. You want more Simon Pegg? Check: he and Cruise spend a good chunk of the film as a team of two. Death-defying stunts? Double-check: though none beat Ghost Pro‘s Burj Khalifa setpiece for sheer visceral thrill, Rogue Nation has more of them. (It also has a pulse-pounding motorcycle chase that puts M:I 2′s to shame.) A villain who’s actually smarter than the hero, like in J.J. Abrams’s underrated third film? Harris is no Philip Seymour Hoffman, but he’s better and more interesting than the last guy, and with a splash of Keyser Soze. You miss Paula Patton? Get a load of the formidable, steely-eyed Ferguson. (And how!)
McQuarrie also one-ups Ghost’s witty, musical “Ain’t That A Kick In The Head” prologue with Rogue‘s best sequence, an exercise in Hitchcockian tension set amidst a performance of Puccini’s Turandot. Cruise jumps across catwalks backstage with snipers in every direction, the dynamics of the action in sync with the orchestra. The film, for all its crazy technology and plotting that seems to rely primarily on USB drives, is a throwback in spirit, helped along by Robert Elswit’s old-school cinematography. Not only does that (surprisingly inconsequential to the story) plane hang evoke North by Northwest, you could argue all of Rogue Nation is an extended Casablanca homage. Ferguson’s character is named Ilsa, after all, similarly trapped between loyalties and countries, but Ingrid Berman never snapped a guy’s neck with her thighs. (More’s the pity.)
Under normal circumstances, I’d say that Rogue has one setpiece too many, and cheats a bit too much on its surprises, but I was having too much fun to care. I loved watching the gifted Pegg’s reactions as Cruise drags him into one dangerous situation after another. I loved how Ving Rhames has more to do in this one than “say something grumpy and walk off frame.” I loved watching Jeremy Renner (who between this and Bourne has now had two franchises handed to him, then taken away) flit around a typically blustery Alec Baldwin, and the perfectly deployed payoff at the film’s London climax. I loved how Ferguson’s Ilsa could easily kick Cruise’s ass, and both of them know it. Most of all, I love how this series has been able to maintain a suprising level of excellence over 19 years with constant creative turnover. (I’d rank this one just a hair behind Ghost, and slightly above the first, but I won’t quibble.) It’s become a proving ground for somewhat green but creative filmmakers to show their action bona fides — but goodness, can you imagine what George Miller could do? Someone give Cruise his number.
My allegiance, at least, is clear. I’ll keep seeing Mission: Impossible films as long as Cruise keeps making them — and yes, it has to be Cruise. It’s no coincidence that I used his name 35 times in this review. He may be a madman, but he’s our madman.