For a franchise nineteen years and five installments old, I’m surprised at how absolutely fresh Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation feels. At two hours and eleven minutes in length, it has every excuse in the book to feel as drawn-out and bloated as much of the common action fare at the multiplex these days–Mad Max reboots notwithstanding–and yet, amazingly, the film never fails to move along at a brisk clip, gliding easily from sequences of snippy dialog to action setpieces executed wordlessly. It’s everything that Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t and more.
Much of the credit for this is largely due to the technical team behind the film: namely, editor Eddie Hamilton, cinematographer Robert Elswit, and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie. The team effort that these three bring to the table creates a work in which no individual effort stands out above all of the others–largely because they’re all working in complete unison with each other at the service of delivering the best possible version of the film that they can.
Take, for instance, the much-advertised sequence in which Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, must dive underwater without oxygen for three minutes straight while his partner (played by a hilarious Simon Pegg) must pass a security system aboveground. Their work must be in absolute unison and precisely timed, or else both of them could meet a nasty end for nothing. They say their goodbyes, physically separate from each other, and both plunge into their respective nightmares.
What follows is one of the best examples of cutting I have ever seen in an action film. The script and editing are both firing on all cylinders, switching perspectives at exactly the moment that each individual thread has been followed to its best moment of conclusion. It’s a complete avoidance of the “and then” style of story structure that has plagued big-budget filmmaking since the turn of the decade–connecting thoughts and beats rather than just mere setpieces. That’s not to say that one sequence totally makes this film–and, to be fair, all but one of the big setpieces of Rogue Nation definitely could–but it’s just one example of how technical unison can make a film really shine.
Where Rogue Nation excels the most, though, is in its usage of two oft-neglected traits: misdirection and vulnerability. Whereas most “complex” films will dole out left-field, inconceivable plot twists in a weak effort to provide tension, Rogue Nation masterfully sets up our expectations time and time again and then subverts them–or, better still, subverts what our expectations of that subversion will be. It’s a constant game of cat-and-mouse, one that keeps the audience immaculately invested in what’s going on and provides a real source of tension throughout the film. This isn’t just relegated to the storyline, mind you; in every action sequence, the camerawork is always two steps ahead of even the most observant audience member, setting up clues, beats, and punchlines long before the frame will center on them. It’s a strategy that structures Rogue Nation much like a Jackie Chan comedy–which strangely works, given the story’s labyrinthine plot and constant back-stabbing.
Likewise, Rogue Nation absolutely revels in watching its protagonist suffer. Cruise’s character is everything but invincible–he’s shot, shocked, and back from the dead before the film is even halfway over–and it’s this, the vulnerability of the hero, that makes Rogue Nation really shine. For all of these movies with menacing villains threatening to dominate the world and break the hero, it’s rare that I actually believe in the possibility of loss. This tightwire act, making every victory seem pyrrhic and hard-won, makes Rogue Nation an incredibly tense mission from start to finish. It’s not impossible to make blockbusters on this level; just heartbreakingly rare.