That Tom Hollander, he’s come a long way. Back in 2009’s brilliant In The Loop, Hollander played the dumbfounded Simon Foster, a Secretary Of State of some kind and a smalltime MP. Now, in Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation — the fifth film keeping that inflammable Lalo Schifrin theme-tune from the sixties still hot — Hollander has flown up the ranks enough in order to play the Prime Minister of England. Which isn’t to say that he is any less inept.
Nearly everyone, as a matter of fact, in the new Mission Impossible movie, appears significantly dunderheaded with the exception of the all-conquering leading man and — in a rather nice switch — the leading lady (who is, refreshingly enough, not his leading lady). We’ll get to her soon, but let us first deal with the well-cast but often clueless men: there’s Alec Baldwin, every bit the CEO of GE, using words like “salvageable assets” while describing a spy organisation; there’s Jeremy Renner, wearing a well-cut suit and a permanent scowl; there’s Simon Pegg, playing Halo wearing exquisite headphones and, later, doing all the damsel-in-distress screaming a movie can handle; there’s Ving Rhames saying he can handle it (in a thick voice) and then failing to do so; and there’s Sean Harris playing a big cold villain who is basically Blofeld without a monocle — pity, that. He could have used some reflection at the end of this film.
All these men, at various points of the film, look utterly useless. This is obviously by design, since the film is meant to glorify one astounding superstar who can hold his breath for six straight minutes and then carry off, in broad daylight, a shirt only meant to be worn in a nightclub as nefarious as the Viper Room. Tom Cruise is 53, and, having swigged from the elixir of eternal youth, eager to show off the results. He is — in the best sense of the term — an old-school superstar, the sort they don’t make anymore. He’s a cocksure, attractive Hero with one helluva smile who wears his invincibility casually, like a light sports-jacket. Despite the name of the franchise, nothing seems remotely impossible — or even unlikely — for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. He the man.
And — in a move Bond-movies can learn from — she the woman. Rebecca Ferguson plays a crafty double-agent called Ilsa Faust, a woman introduced to us, one must confess, a bit too sexually, but one who promptly throws off the femme fatale stereotype to picks up a sniper-rifle instead. She might look good in heels but she slips ‘em off whenever action calls. (And action presses redial pretty often.) There is a scene where she commands Hunt to take her skyscraper-high shoes off so she can run across rooftops more efficiently, and then, before running, she takes them from him. Throughout this film, she holds her own. Mercifully, there is no romantic subplot to muddy things up.
McQuarrie — who directed the ineffective Jack Reacher but also wrote The Usual Suspects back in the day and, more tellingly, the very cool Cruise-killing Edge Of Tomorrow — was handpicked by the star for the director’s chair. This marks the first time the director isn’t a distinctive stylist, with the four films before this one boasting of Brian De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams and Brad Bird. What sticks in the mind most is De Palma’s dizzyingly complicated but thrillingly sexy first chapter. Yet while McQuarrie might not already have a directing voice per se, this frees him up to go straight for the meat instead of trying to add his own directorial stamp. As a result, the new film is almost entirely free of fat, a lean thriller that is so slick it feels lubricated.
It’s all good, and it looks spectacular. Robert Elswit shoots this film both briskly and beautifully, and a Hitchcock-saluting sequence at the Vienna Opera House borrows from The Man Who Knew Too Much while, using a beautiful vertical panorama shot, nearly triggers vertigo. The action is forever coherent, with special attention being paid to the tinier nuances of the gigantic setpieces. We see Cruise’s cartoonishly pained expression when strapped outside a flying plane, we hold our collective breath when he drifts his car like a boss, and, during an assassination gone wrong, we cut away briefly to see the intended target make a Monty Python joke and brush it off as “just a flesh-wound.”
There is one glitch, though. This Mission Impossible villain is, as said, a pale Blofeld imitation, which automatically makes him a Dr Evil imitation: running a secret organisation and trying to acquire a sum way too small to endanger the world or require the Prime Minister’s retinal scan: in this film we talk about 2.4 billion dollars. It’s not small change, sure, but we all know Avengers 3 will make more than that.
Still, this is a smart, constantly engaging ride which doesn’t spend long on exposition. Much of the shadowy work now looks much better done by day, and stunts are based on ingenuity even more than they are about spectacle. We frequently don’t remember how tall the building was, but do remember sweat falling onto a glove. This fifth instalment might not be as iconic, but it is genuinely compelling. Also, as a bonus in this comic book blockbuster age, you can enter this Tom Cruise film knowing nothing of backstory or mission history, and come out massively entertained.
It’s hard not to be awestruck. The 53-year-old leading man hasn’t self-destructed in five films, and I, for one, can’t wait to see Cruise lunge forth a sixth time. This is his kind of, um, risky business.
Rating: 3.5 stars
First published Rediff, August 7, 2015