The official villain in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is a man named Solomon Lane, who heads up a secret shadow organization called the Syndicate, but the actual villain that Tom Cruise is looking to pummel into submission is the aging process. Cruise’s Ethan Hunt can still do parkour and shimmy up a pole using nothing but ab crunches, yet his attempt to dye and wrestle his hair into Reaganesque submission is a greater battle than his fistfights with various villains, and he can’t hide the old-man nose that’s starting to get too big for his baby-face.
That’s just the literal part of the equation. On a plot level, there’s more.
To wit – Evil Solomon Lane (Prometheus‘ Sean Harris) is depicted as a creepy, older, alt-Ethan who has given up battling for the status quo, and is instead using his anti-IMF to mold it into what he deems a better place. It’s never clear what his vision of such is, because he seems to be doing everything he does just to draw out Ethan and best him; Ethan responds by being so doggedly determined to win the fight that even his close friends think he’s become too obsessive. There’s no obvious reason here, like revenge for a loved one’s death – Lane’s unspeakable crime that kicks off the vendetta, aside from being a general global bad guy, is to murder a young woman who has expressed admiration for Ethan in a record store. Age is the ultimate cockblock.
Meanwhile Alec Baldwin’s CIA guy Hunley is dismantling the IMF on the homefront – that Baldwin previously played CIA agent Jack Ryan is surely no coincidence, as here is the guy who was Hunt (for Red October) onscreen before Hunt (comma, Ethan), trying to claim the IMF is irrelevant. Late in the game he winds up giving a speech about how amazing Ethan is that’s presented as sincere analysis in context, but is so overblown in actuality that one can’t help feeling Baldwin is being sarcastic with us.
Ethan Hunt has never been much of a character to begin with – he is now and always was a Mary Sue (or Mary Bond, perhaps) for Tom Cruise and whatever big-name director was added to the mix, so it’s smart to have the plot mirror his real-life anxieties. Note how many times in the series Hunt’s elite group with its weird technology is unfairly persecuted and smeared as a force for evil, only to be vindicated and save the world every time.
That said, the fifth Mission Impossible is a solid hour-and-a-half action film. Unfortunately, the run time is two hours and ten minutes. I suspect my waning interest by the time the final confrontation was gearing up is due to director Christopher McQuarrie being more interested generally in twisty plots and old-school beatdowns rather than big action; while the Bond movies that are the obvious model for the big-screen series start with the spy stuff and gradually build to huge battles at secret bases, McQuarrie’s pacing doesn’t escalate like that, but rather features fits and starts. As in the very first M:I film, the great action setpiece (that underwater scene from the trailer) happens mid-movie. As in M:I-III, this leaves the movie as a whole to peter out in smaller, character based confrontations that feel like a comedown and gradually deflate the adrenaline high. My rule that the even-numbered ones are the best ones still stands – Ghost Protocol has the best action and pacing, and part 2 is just over-the-top bonkers John Woo in self-parody mode.
|Dye hard, with a vengeance|
Cruise rarely works well with other male co-leads for an entire film’s run-time (Goose metaphorically must die for Maverick to be Top Gun), but he should – the most notable feature in which he did was Rain Man, arguably his best. Here, it’s the moments with Simon Pegg’s Benji that shine, as he brings out Cruise’s comedic side, and even gets to win an argument with him. As a full-on buddy movie, this would be great, but inevitably we do have to have the star solo on his motorcycle taking out the bad guys, as the team – which includes Jeremy Renner’s Brandt and Ving Rhames’ Luther – looks on, and a new hot brunette (Hercules‘ Rebecca Ferguson) takes all of Hunt’s attention. Although, notably, the two don’t even kiss – she gets a fatherly hug, because once again, age interrupts love.
The trick with Tom Cruise is to get him to play people who are underdogs, turning what seems like the actor’s confidence into a character’s false bravado that must be stripped down. This is hardest in the M:I films, where he’s playing the greatest, most talented person in the world, and the usual solution is to present him with a task so ridiculously implausible that even the perfect human could not rationally expect to accomplish it. So when he’s hanging off the side of a plane, or trying to hold his breath for more than three minutes underwater while dodging a mechanical arm at high speed, it’s exciting and there’s tension. Less so when he walks into a battle of wills – he’s too amazing to let anyone else pull one over on him.
It’s time to go full Wrath of Khan next time. Acknowledge late middle age rather than sucking it in and plastering it down with products. The more Ethan loses a step, the more interesting it gets…and I’m not convinced the star understands that.