I’ve actually seen this movie twice now, as the first time I was in the midst of what proved to be a rather major health episode, and was, to be forthright, in an enhanced viewing state. One that turned out to be more interesting than the movie, and I entered a state of: “I’m just going to close my eyes and have my own thoughts, rather than watch this.” Not to say that it’s not a terrific movie—it is—although, like the last one, it goes on about twenty minutes too long, and during that last twenty minutes, it undoes much of the goodwill it built up through the main part of its running time, in which it proves very smart, nicely plotted and packed with ingenious surprises and more than a few impeccable, stunning sequences. This was confirmed through my second, non-enhanced viewing, although the fact that it goes on twenty minutes too long was also confirmed. Let us elaborate.
The movie begins with the film’s signature stunt, which is Tom Cruise hanging off the side of an airplane. I kind of liked that they got the big one out of the way early, and we didn’t know too much of what was to come. He’s stealing back some chemical weapons, and I also liked the touch that instead of a clever kiss-off line to a bad guy when discovered, he just gives a look like “Well, you win some, you lose some” before taking off with the goods. So far, so good!
So you know that the Mission: Impossible series was looking quite tired, as was Tom Cruise, when suddenly the fourth film, directed by Brad Bird, was unexpectedly amazing, and brought the series back to relevance and profitability. And justifiably so; that film was quite clever, funny, had ingenious reversals, relatively deep character motivations, and amazing set-pieces, including Cruise on the side of the tallest building in the world, which actually, to my shock, had me on the edge of my seat. It also, like this one, was twenty minutes too long. So this film is an attempt to build on that success, and by and large it does quite a solid job, if perhaps it lacks some of the energizing spark of its predecessor. This is directed by Christopher McQuarrie, writer of The Usual Suspects, who also directed Cruise in the fairly hideous Jack Reacher, and wrote Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow. So he seems to be Cruise’s main man right now, and I have to say, having seem Jack Reacher, his skills as a director have grown exponentially.
SPOILERS > > >
The movie starts with a nice surprise as Cruise’s Ethan Hunt goes in to get his mission, in the usual secret style, and it turns out to be the bad guys, who essentially say “You’re caught, and now you’re fucked.” He catches a glimpse of the bad guy, Lane, before being gassed and passing out. By the way, prior to this, the pretty young assistant has gasped that she’s in the presence of THE Ethan Hunt and implied that he made her vulva quite humid. This will not be the last moment of Hunt/Cruise worship in the film, which, as we know, Cruise himself orchestrated [Jack Reacher was also full of Cruise adulation] and brings up issues about his age and insecurity that we wouldn’t have thought of had he not mentioned them.
He next wakes up bound and in the presence of the lovely Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, who helps him escape, but has to make it look like she’s with the bad guys. Ferguson is a Swedish actress and finding an excellent, unknown [to us] actress is another of the film’s brilliant touches. Blah, blah, he gets in touch with Benji, that’s Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner, who joined up in the last movie. Renner is defending the IMF [not the International Monetary Fund] in a series of hearings which adds spice but really does nothing for the movie. Ethan thinks Lane is going to be at the Vienna Opera, and he recruits Benji to go with him there.
This sequence becomes, by far, the best thing about the film. We have a lot of satisfying setup as Ethan, Benji, and a big blond assassin take their places. A complication emerges in that the Austrian chancellor is in the audience. Setup accomplished, we have a brief fade-out, and the music starts. You’ll notice that everything for the remainder of the sequence is set to appropriate music from the opera. As Ethan is following the blond assassin, he notices that Ilsa is also there, in a stunning yellow dress that slinks beautifully up stairs and ladders after her. There are many clever shots in which one person is up close here, while another is across the theater over there. Ethan has a big fight on moving catwalks while the performance goes on below, then he makes a surprise decision to shoot the Austrian chancellor in the arm in order to thwart the various assassins [one of which is Ilsa], leading to a big escape with Ilsa, the second phase of the whole, lengthy sequence. Reading this probably doesn’t do justice to just how lovely the whole sequence is… the whole thing flows musically, is notably set largely to music, and just has a great rhythm, pacing and flow of images that works impeccably. It’s also enjoyable because what’s good about it is explicitly the technique. It seems that McQuarrie decided he’s going to give us a big showstopper of a sequence and then goes on to do exactly that. In fact, it’s so good, it’s kind of a bummer that there has to be a rest of the movie.
But, there must. After some more hugger-mugger, they have to break into a massively secure environment to get yet another top-secret computer file, which involves Ethan diving into a big donut-shaped underwater room. I read somewhere that Tom Cruise trained in order to hold his breath for six minutes in order to film this sequence, and I thought gosh, he shouldn’t have bothered, as it looks absolutely CGI the way it is, and has plenty of edits during which he could breathe. Still, fun enough, and it has a few clever twists [two identical cards, only one of which will work, get mixed up in the water], and is certainly unusual.
Then a big car chase, immediately followed by a big motorcycle chase, which also seemed to be a nod to the prior film, which stacked the big skyscraper sequence with a big sandstorm chase. They’re both fine. In here, we find out that Ilsa is actually a British agent, which explains why she’s posing as part of the bad guys while helping Ethan and team so much, and features the lovely and talented Simon McBurney, character actor who is just always so good every time he appears. Soon there’s another clever reversal regarding the British Prime Minister, and after that…
< < < SPOILERS END
…is precisely the point at which the movie starts going on too long. By that time you’re just getting tired, and all the major sequences are over, and it’s just fistfights and escapes and blah-blah til it’s over. My friend afterward asked me if I agreed that there were too many people smashing through windows in this movie, and I had to agree that there was. You’re just waiting for it to wrap up, but there’s another bomb strapped to someone, and a chase, and a fight, and a chase, and a fight… the movie wraps up nicely, with a clever and quiet resolution instead of a loud one, but it all could have been so much stronger if they had just left one of those major action sequences out and cut out one major complication, in order that the remainder would shine that much brighter. It could have been a tight and taut action thriller, but instead it lets itself get bloated, which brings down the overall impact of its best sequences.
Rebecca Ferguson is a brilliant touch to the movie, in that she adds a nice European sensibility, isn’t model thin, and it's also welcome that she seems like a mature woman, not the typical 20 year old. We are [apparently] to believe that there is some kind of feeling developing between her and Ethan—note the swooning music cue from the opera that plays at key Ilsa moments—but the sense that they have any kind of real relationship [or even a spark] unfortunately doesn’t really come through. The movie just doesn’t have time for it. In the latter half, Ilsa suggests that Ethan drop it all and “Come away with me,” which… makes one wish that, even for a moment, we felt like this was a temptation. I’d like for this movie to go a little On Her Majesty’s Secret Service [which suddenly I must re-watch NOW] and believe that Ethan might have second thoughts about his profession, or SOMETHING, have some emotional response to SOMETHING.
Which leads to a particular quirk about this character—basically, that he’s not a character. He’s just a single-minded force for his mission. It actually got a little silly by the end of the last movie, where he’s so unstoppable and dedicated it started to seem a little bizarre. It’s not as bad here, but he’s still just a big, worried, single-minded force with no character tics whatsoever [except being a good ol’ boy casual bud in the off hours]. It would be nice if one of the movies could step back and maybe examine what’s behind his obsessional focus, and does he EVER miss having a normal life? One could, I suppose, mention film 3, in which he considers giving it all up to marry, and… maybe it’s better than I remember? But my memory is of typical JJ Abrams “Emotion,” i.e. a series of pre-digested cliches from other films, walking through the motions of human feeling without having a single sincere or genuinely involving moment. Anyway, I know they tried. Maybe they should try again and actually DO it? But one suspects that Cruise’s religion might have something to do with it, as well as the way his character is portrayed in this film, with several scenes and lines about what an amazing superhuman he is, culminating in poor Alec Baldwin having to keep a straight face while referring to him as “The living manifestation of destiny.” Which... what does that even MEAN?!
That said, this series has hit on a winning formula, with a nice mix of action, a light tone with lots of humor, a good ensemble cast, lots of twists, and decent-enough stories that are actually somewhat comprehensible. And there’s very little indication that might change any time soon. And I’ll definitely be there at number 6, although I’m ready for a little variation.
If you like this kind of thing, this is a well-oiled machine.