Ethan Hunt is the American James Bond.
That is the big takeaway for me after watching the 5th Mission: Impossible film.
I remember when the Bourne movies were big, people were claiming that he was the American Bond. But he was charmless and lacked panache. Tom Cruise has, over the course of 5 films, created a character that is equal to Bond in every way. And in this current era, I would even say that he is superior. If this was a Bond film in name as well as style, I would say it was one of the best Bond movies in years.
Rogue Nation takes place soon after the last film, Ghost Protocol. Ethan is working an impossible assignment for the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) with Benji (Simon Pegg), the tech genius who assisted him in the last 2 films. The film also wisely brings series regular Luther (Ving Rhames) up in a role bigger than a cameo. The opening scene is an insane stunt on an airplane. I know that you shouldn't need to have information outside of a movie in order to enjoy it, but knowing that the stunts were not CGI and that it really is Tom Cruise hanging off of a plane... it was thrilling. In fact, knowing that Cruise did all of his own stunt work gives every bit of peril an added edge of thrill.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) tries to shut down the IMF and is only opposed by Brandt (Jeremy Renner). The timing couldn't be worse because Ethan at that time uncovers the existence of a group called The Syndicate, or as Benji calls them "an Anti-IMF." He also encounters the mysterious Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), who presents a dangerous enigma to the plot.
Beyond that, I do not want to give anything away. Part of the fun is watching the plan unfold in this delicious espionage thriller.
In terms of action, the movie is the best I've seen this summer. The use of practical effects and elaborate stunts was a brilliant touch by director Christopher McQuarrie. I am not one who hates CGI, but there is definitely an inverse relationship to the amount of CGI and the sense of real-world peril. McQuarrie makes this secretive world tangible without being unvarnished like the Bourne films.
I also have to say that this movie understands something about good action: make it creative! I want to see things I haven't seen before (like a man hanging off of a real plane). One of my favorite bits from the movie was a scene where Ethan's hands are cuffed around a tall pipe. The way he escapes is a simple and spectacular feat.
And when it comes to action that's been done to death, McQuarrie still knocks it out of the park. I used to say that the best motorcycle chase scene was in the Matrix Reloaded. But Rogue Nation's is better. If there was any shakey-cam I did not notice it. Everything was smooth and sensational. And while no single stunt tops the Dubai Towers sequence from Ghost Protocol, McQuarrie fills his movie with impressive spectacles throughout.
The plot gets convoluted, but that is fine. Each complication leads to more creative action sequences. Ethan's travels take him to fancy Opera Houses, under water computers and the streets of London. Tom Cruise has lost none of his charisma, star power, or physical presence. It is hard to believe that his first impossible mission was 2 decades ago.
Ethan has moved from junior agent to top agent to mentor agent to most important agent to legendary agent. His name carries an earned awe throughout the film in the same way Bond does. And Ethan has his own Q (Benji and/or Luther) and his own M (Brandt). This legend status does sometimes get him in to trouble, especially where Benji tends to oversell his abilities.
The rest of the cast does very well. Pegg is the best he's been in these films, as this time he has an actual arch. Rhames brings a strong steady presence and Renner adds a nice intellectual balance to the mix. Ferguson is great as Ilsa, playing her character inscrutibly and yet sympathetically, which is difficult to say the least. There are a few cheesecake shots that leeringly highlight her physique, but the film also goes out of its way to show the definition in a shirtless Ethan. We know we should trust her, but we want to. Baldwin, however, phones in his performance like he's reading his lines off of cue cards off camera. This former Jack Ryan is a total waste in a role better suited to someone like Kevin Costner.
The villains are also nothing to write home about. They have their motivations, but they are as forgettable as most of the M:I villains of the past (can you name any of the villain characters since the first?). The run time also gets a little long, but the film doesn't drag.
I had not appreciated up until this point what Cruise has been doing the past 20 years with Mission: Impossible. I thought he was simply padding his resume with some popcorn action flicks. But now looking back, noting how the franchise has taken on different directors with their own unique flavor, I see now what he has been up to: Cruise has been slowly creating an iconic cinematic character.
At this point, with the Mission: Impossible movies getting better and better, I am hungering for the return of Ethan Hunt to the big screen as soon as possible.
4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.