After four “Mission: Impossible” films where superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has risked his life and sacrificed any chance of future happiness for his country while wiggling out of the most unlikely tight spots ever devised, how is it that the fifth installment, “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation,” is still able to pile on the suspense?
We know, after all, that Hunt isn’t going to die, because otherwise Cruise’s most successful franchise is kaput. And the stakes have gone from being international to personal.
Hunt already gave up the love of his life in earlier films for this most dangerous of careers. Outside of another nation-threatening dilemma (and who hasn’t seen a million of those recently in every superhero movie?), what else is there that writer/director Christopher McQuarrie can possibly do to Ethan Hunt that will make us worry for his safety?
Well, for starters, he can release a teaser scene of Cruise holding on for dear life to the side of a moving airplane. It’s a shrewd move, because the 53-year-old actor is known for doing his own stunts, such as hanging from a cliff in “M:I 2” and climbing on the outside of the world's tallest building in “Ghost Protocol.”
But that airplane sequence only comprises the first five minutes of “Rogue Nation” (which, being a spoiler-phobic avoider of trailers, I find to be an astute move). No, McQuarrie (and Drew Pearce, who has a co-story credit) have more old-school thrills in mind, and they stem from a combination of Hunt's justified paranoia and a battle of wits that’s so convoluted you’d think the men on both sides must be psychic.
The man opposite Hunt is Lane (Sean Harris), the leader of an underground terrorist organization motivated by money called The Syndicate. It’s not the most original name in the world, but McQuarrie’s efficient script builds this “anti-IMF” up to be Hunt’s strategic equal, with the advantage of being untroubled by any sense of moral dilemma. It’s a very “Dark Knight” kind of dichotomy, with Hunt and Lane the Batman and Joker of the film: two sides of the same coin.
Like the Joker, Lane seems to be two steps ahead of Hunt at every turn as he manipulates all situations to make sure Hunt does his bidding. One reason he continues to be strung along (despite recognizing it) is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an ex-British double agent whose loyalty is constantly in question, while her attraction to Hunt never is.
Hunt sidekick Benji (Simon Pegg) is back for comic relief again, and he doesn’t disappoint, but Pegg excels at making his computer expert more human than the usual stereotype, and when he’s in danger, it’s palpable. Having debuted in the last film, Jeremy Renner is newer to the team, so his loyalty is also in question and McQuarrie gives he and Ilsa plenty of scenes to keep the audience guessing.
There’s also series newcomer Alec Baldwin, a perfect choice to make the most out of a small role as an antagonistic CIA director. Ving Rhames, the only other actor from the 1996 original besides Cruise to appear, is reliably, well, reliable. There’s no question he’s got Hunt’s back, which is probably why he has the least to do.
Put simply, “Rogue Nation” is an old-fashioned paranoid thriller wrapped up in the body of a 21st century action movie. There are plenty of ridiculous stunts, and they’re pulled off with the skill and grace we’ve come to expect, just as we’ve come to expect Hunt to walk away from a multiple end-over-end car flip virtually unscathed.
But the set pieces are lush (one standout is an assassination attempt at an Italian opera) and the action seems mostly done in camera, without an over-reliance on CGI effects.
With the will-they-or-won’t-they tension between Ferguson and Cruise, the densely plotted conflicts that rarely give you time to think too much about them and the fact that everyone on all sides has a reason to stop Hunt, “Rogue Nation” is a satisfying Hollywood actioner that keeps you guessing.
Baldwin’s character at one point calls Ethan Hunt — the single-minded hero who makes miracles happen on an hourly basis — “the living manifestation of destiny.” It’s the only way to explain the supernatural combination of skill and luck that has carried Cruise’s iconic character through these films, and it’s the rare moment that the franchise winks to its audience.
What this series has going for it otherwise, especially in the last three installments, is an ability to squeeze out suspense and surprise without going full-on parody. The events depicted are just as unlikely to happen in any modicum of real life as in the “Fast & Furious” films, but the tone isn’t as deadpan serious, soapy or corny. Dare I say “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” is kind of... classy? Yes, I think I do.
“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” runs 131 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity.
“Edge of Tomorrow” is a sci-fi actioner with the mechanics of a video game, where the protagonist gets another life and another chance every time he dies, but retains the knowledge and skill of all past lives. What helps the movie rise above a superficial level, however, is that it successfully dramatizes both the emotional drain and the core moral dilemma of experiencing the same situation over and over again.
That, and stuff blows up real good.
In a welcome change of pace, Tom Cruise isn’t the tough guy everyman. He plays Lieutenant Colonel Bill Cage, a spineless weasel who flies around the world in his role as Army press agent, drumming up worldwide support for a war against an alien race called Mimics who are currently wiping out Europe. When a cranky general (Brendan Gleeson) orders him to the front lines of a suicidal battle, he does everything in his power to get out of it.
The Mimics are completely CGI creations, of course — spindly, rotating hairballs that move at lightning-fast speeds — but their unpredictable rhythms give them a shock and awe factor that amps up tension in the film’s many action scenes. When Cruise’s platoon hits the beach, director Doug Liman draws a clear visual parallel to the famous D-Day invasion scene in “Saving Private Ryan,” with a potent mix of the exciting and terrifying. Up to that point, the film is all a buildup to that terror, putting the audience in the heads of the ground forces who know they are doomed.
But then everything changes. When Cage is killed, he finds himself somehow transported backward in time, but with the knowledge of everything that has already happened. I won’t spoil the script’s justification for this, but let’s just say that if you can ignore one big plot oversight and accept the “Groundhog Day” version of time travel where outcomes differ only slightly rather than having a butterfly effect, the basic concept of “Edge of Tomorrow” works beautifully.
The screenplay from Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (and based on the Japanese young-adult novel "All You Need Is Kill") explores all kinds of variables, exploiting alternate realities not only for maximum plot-related novelty but also from Cage’s perspective. The mental and physical drain of endlessly repeating the same day takes a toll on Cage, and the “reset” button as it were requires him to be killed, so there’s that to look forward to as well.
Once super-soldier Rita (known on war effort posters as “The Angel of Verdun”), played by Emily Blunt, enters the picture, there’s a nifty backstory that informs her character as well. But his relationship with her is one-sided because she doesn’t remember him when each day repeats itself.
“Edge of Tomorrow” wisely minimizes the amount of repeated scenes and makes big narrative leaps, daring the audience to keep up. It uses its video game-style setup not just for interesting plot twists and well-placed humor, but also to make some interesting observations about the burden of omniscience. What are the moral implications? How can Cage make choices knowing life and death outcomes of each one?
The movie doesn’t necessarily engage with this on a deep level, but it’s all part of the coloring that makes “Edge of Tomorrow” one seriously entertaining summer movie.
Movies that rock
Right now, Liberty Hall is in the midst of a hand-picked series of some of the best rock n' roll movies ever made. For anyone who saw the recent David Byrne/St. Vincent live concert at Liberty Hall, "True Stories" is a must-see on the big screen.
On Sunday, there will be a special screening of that 1986 film, and with it the opportunity to see a truly strange Talking Heads movie. Directed by Byrne himself, "True Stories" has a surreal David Lynchian quality as Byrne plays an unnamed reporter of sorts visiting a fictional Texas town. It's part mockumentary, part musical as he meets the eccentric residents of Virgil, played by Spalding Gray, Swoosie Kurtz, Pops Staples, and — in one of his first film roles — John Goodman.
Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" may be the greatest concert film ever. From the soundtrack to the cinematography, it's a film that can barely contain its makers' passion for music. "The Last Waltz" was shot at The Band's Winterland Ballroom farewell concert in San Francisco in 1976, and released in 1978. Guest performers like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan all have amazing performances with the roots-rock giants backing them up, but it's Scorsese's potent close-ups during The Band's own songs that make this a moving tribute the emotional power of rock n' roll.
Richard Lester's hyper-real version of The Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night" didn't have to be anything more than a showcase for the Fab Four and their newest tunes. What it became instead was an instant classic: a movie that combined the natural charisma of the band with a narrative style that threw out the rulebook completely and created the film language of the music video.
On July 4, 5 and 6, Liberty Hall will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of a groundbreaking film that's still fresh and exciting today. Besides being chock full of classic songs, "A Hard Day's Night" embraces non-sequitur sight gags and makes self-aware jokes on the nature of celebrity. Credit should also be given to The Beatles for being their usual witty selves and for being so used to cameras that nothing felt intrusive anymore.