“With the IMF now disbanded and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out in the cold, a new threat — called the Syndicate — soon emerges. The Syndicate is a network of highly skilled operatives who are dedicated to establishing a new world order via an escalating series of terrorist attacks. Faced with what may be the most impossible mission yet, Ethan gathers his team and joins forces with Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a disavowed British agent who may or may not be a member of this deadly rogue nation.” (Synopsis by Alibaba Pictures Group)
This summer’s lineup of blockbusters is throwing a lot of different things at us. Between Mad Max not being the star in his own movie, the “Fast and Furious” gang parting with a central member of their beloved family, and The Avengers acting less like a team of heroes and more like a ragtag group of rogues, we’re getting less of the same old Adventure of the Week stories and more development of our favorite characters and their worlds.
Or are we?
Enter “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” The fifth installment in the franchise, this newest chapter follows renaissance action man Ethan Hunt (Cruise) on another mission of global significance. Yet again he assembles a small team of his most trusted associates, partakes in a death-defying stunt to retrieve some inconceivably well-guarded gadget, survives countless near-misses during an edge-of-your-seat car chase, and finishes by turning the tables on the villain using an elaborate, luck-dependent scheme.
Don’t get me wrong; each of the elements I just mentioned is entertaining enough to be well worth the price of admission. And there are additional highlights I’d rather not spoil. But the entertainment factor was never the weakest part of any “Mission: Impossible” movie. All of them are good for exhilarating eye candy. (Even the original holds up pretty well after nearly 20 years.) Instead, “Rogue Nation” misses the target in another way.
Following the likes of a growing list of modern action movies, including “The Expendables” and its sequels, “G.I. Joe” and its sequel, “A Good Day to Die Hard,” and even “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” “Rogue Nation” forgoes any development of its main character for the sake of incorporating more action sequences and handholding.
The running time of an action movie determines more things about it than you may realize. And if you think about movies as pragmatically as studios do, you ask questions like these: Why would Ethan Hunt as an established character, let alone Tom Cruise as an A-list actor, require additional screen time spent on development in order to lure audiences or keep them interested? Why would the screen time saved by sacrificing that development not be used to include more action sequences that can be referenced in trailers and commercials so as to attract a wider audience? And why would we lengthen an already action-packed movie by belaboring the subtleties of the plot when key details can be spelled out for the sake of convenience and time?
These aren’t the worst questions for a studio to ask itself, depending on what kind of action movie it’s looking to make. They’re the same ones that MGM must have asked itself whenever it made one of the sillier James Bond sequels (“Die Another Day” springs to mind). And make no mistake, between “Ghost Protocol” and “Rogue Nation” Paramount Pictures is trying their damnedest to make Cruise’s Ethan Hunt the American version of James Bond, replete with tuxedoed scenes in opulent settings, foreign adversaries, and stunts that only a madman would attempt.
But the character of Ethan wasn’t created to be James Bond’s doppelganger, was he? Director Brian De Palma’s original “Mission: Impossible” wanted him to always be the underdog, fighting uphill battles that would require both his athletic and intellectual prowess to win. Now, it would seem all Ethan needs to best the baddies is Cruise’s ageless body and the gumption of a master jewel thief. On the one hand it’s relieving to know the series hasn’t stagnated, as too many good ones have. But on the other, it’s disappointing that we’re getting greater entertainment at the cost of nuance and distinction. If this is the future of the franchise, so be it. I’ll still be the first in line when the next film comes out. But I won’t be able to help lamenting what could have been.