|'the series continues to shrink from the genuinely unexpected, occasionally quite scary, parts of Mission: Impossible III'|
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is both the most recent and most overt entry yet into the ongoing discussion around Hollywood's 'Tom Cruise problem', which I've mentioned briefly before. To summarise, the problem runs something like this: Hollywood is desperate to find a Tom Cruise replacement/alternative, someone who can launch a film, but is currently failing, meaning that all the Tom Cruise roles are still going to, well... Tom Cruise.
In Rogue Nation, Cruise again takes on the most Tom Cruise of all the Tom Cruise roles: Ethan Hunt, the evergreen Impossible Mission Force agent who has so far survived more disasters than a Roland Emmerich film. The discussion around the 'Tom Cruise problem' is taken on in two main ways. Firstly, Cruise is creaking. He can still do this better than anyone currently available, but his lack of modern action ability is slowly starting to show underneath the charm. An early scene of Cruise escaping whilst jumping up a pole using, apparently, only his abs and forearms whilst also having his hands tied is ludicrous to the point of hurting your suspension of disbelief, director Christopher McQuarrie taking the series towards ever harder action in order, perhaps, to hide Cruise's ability to actually perform the same. It hurts Rogue Nation on occasion.
Secondly, the film brings back Ghost Protocol's William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Brandt was suggested in Ghost Protocol as a potential replacement for Hunt but after that film and Renner's apparent failure as a leading man (read: Tom Cruise alternative) in The Bourne Legacy, his presence here is symbolic of the 'Tom Cruise problem'. Brandt is both elevated and relegated; from field agent to apparent figurehead of the IMF, action man to desk jockey. He gets one tame scene of action running after a car (with Hunt) and then, for the most part, has to engage in verbal gymnastics with the head of the C.I.A. (Alec Baldwin) or moan about Luther's (Ving Rhames) choice of car which, by-the-by, is conveniently too slow to allow the pair to get involved in the meaty stuff.
Fascinating 'Tom Cruise problem' aside, though clearly, as above, it does factor into the film's successes or otherwise, Rogue Nation feels an over-safe entry into the Mission: Impossible franchise. Villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) is introduced early on as someone with a route to get one over on Hunt and potentially to be as nasty as Mission: Impossible III's convincingly personal villain, Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The casting of current go-to evil man Harris supports this, but the story does not. After his initial bought of cold-blooded evilness, against an anonymous character we have no connection with, Lane never really threatens properly again.
He is also eventually absorbed by the over-complicated story, which makes the mistake of thinking that we care about why he is evil. In such offerings as the Mission: Impossible series, there is no real need for this level of depth, and Lane's motivation is eventually blotted out by too much backstory, which mistakes deep development for any sort of narrative drive. On occasion, it looks like there has been some late, and hasty, script redrafting, 'key' characters only making it to the screen for the first time during the third act.
On the positive side, Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust is a great creation and a marked improvement on damsel-in-distress Julia (Michelle Monaghan), whose absence is never mentioned and rather taken as a given. Whilst Monaghan did a fine job, that job was ultimately to develop Hunt's character further, rather than her own. Ferguson is given much more range and much more agency and, as such, is much more of a success. Despite Benji's (Simon Pegg) ability to irritate growing as the series has progressed, here he performs an about-turn, becoming both useful, just convincing enough to operate in the field and a mouthpiece for the audience to say 'wow' a lot. His one-liners are stock but it points to good writing by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce that this is his least annoying outing in the series and Pegg's least annoying turn for some time as 'supporting character who gets largely un-needed laughs'. If that sounds like damning with fake praise then perhaps it is a little harsh: the character works entirely in this film.
The overall feeling by the time the credits roll is perhaps one tinged by confusion, owing to the unnecessarily convoluted plot. McQuarrie's franchise effort is perhaps of the 'one step forwards, two steps back' variety, as the series continues to shrink from the genuinely unexpected, occasionally quite scary, parts of Mission: Impossible III. Where that tried things, and benefited from J.J. Abrams trademark sheen, this sees the franchise back in Cruise's trademark territory; relatively safe, perfectly well done, mainstream Thrillers. It's a fine place to be but it would also be nice to see Hollywood find some way of moving on from it, particularly in the context of this franchise, which is now teetering on the brink of being stale.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is available on UK Blu-ray and DVD from Monday 7th December.