***½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B+
starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin
screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie
directed by Christopher McQuarrie
by Walter Chaw At some point, sneakily, wonderfully, Tom Cruise became our Jackie Chan. It happened when the storyline shifted away from his essential ickiness--the Scientology thing, the Katie Holmes thing, and all the attendant nightmare gossip--and onto his fearlessness and absolute willingness to perform his own stunts wherever possible. (I realize of course that said storyline may never shift for some.) There were murmurs when he did the rock-climbing in the second Mission: Impossible flick--the one where he recruited John Woo, who was at the time the best action director on the planet. Those murmurs turned to grudging admiration once it was revealed that Cruise let himself be suspended for real outside the Burj Khalifa in Brad Bird's superior Ghost Protocol; and now, with Christopher McQuarrie's fleet, intelligent, immanently professional Rogue Nation, for which Cruise hung from an airplane in flight and held his breath for six minutes, Cruise's bravado is a big part of the draw.
Missteps like Rock of Ages aside (and the failure of that was hardly his), credit Cruise as well for his keen ability to ally himself with not only the right A-list directors (Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Kubrick, Michael Mann, Spielberg, PT Anderson), but also the right B-list ones like Doug Liman, Neil Jordan, Ben Stiller, Bird (making his live-action debut), James Mangold, and, twice now, McQuarrie. Just his Mission: Impossible signature franchise recruited, along with Woo, Bird and McQuarrie and Brian freaking DePalma and J.J. Abrams. Cruise is a deeply-flawed human being who knows something about movies and puts his money where his mouth is. He has a sense of humour about himself. He seems aware that he runs a lot in his movies, and in Rogue Nation, his much-discussed height or lack thereof is made into a pretty great joke in the middle of a pretty great action set-piece set to, audaciously, a performance of Puccini's Turandot. Of all the audacious things in the film, in fact, the most audacious may be that composer Joe Kraemer's score adopts "Nessun dorma" as its love theme. It's a lovely recognition that at this point in the franchise (it happened in the fourth Die Hard), Cruise's Ethan Hunt has become, as one character describes him, a "manifestation of fate." He's icon as self-knowing sign and simultaneously its own signifier. Rogue Nation is not unlike a Roland Barthes essay in that way.
It's the kind of action movie that quotes Rudyard Kipling's "If: A Father's Advice to His Son" and does so as a central plot point. Which is not to say that it's pretentious. If anything, Rogue Nation is exuberantly not-pretentious. Its plot is Blofeld-immense (operatic, you could say), covering the discovery of a Bizarro-IMF ("Impossible Missions Force," for the uninitiated), itself a parallel-universe "Hydra" with eurotrash tentacles in every missing plane, factory explosion, and political assassination in the world. Played by the great Sean Harris, who, between this and '71, may finally become the star he should be, main villain Lane is in his constant testing of the fidelity of maybe-double-agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) forever one step ahead of an unusually befuddled and mortal Hunt. Taking a cue, perhaps, from the Casino Royale reboot, Hunt in this one dies (something spoiled in the trailers), for a little while at least, and meets both his Moriarty and, in Ilsa, his Irene Adler. Between her and the ladies of Mad Max: Fury Road, it's been a strong, compelling year for women in superior action movies. Early on, Hunt asks Faust if she's all right with his pace. "Don't wait for me," she replies. And he never does--and she never flags. She saves Hunt twice. Three times, really, if you catch a brilliant bit of business where she casually prevents Hunt from flying off into a void. Perhaps telling too much, I felt like applauding when the standard final showdown between hero and arch-henchman occurred between the goon and, yes, the girl.
For the rest of it, there's that centrepiece at the opera; those scenes where Cruise puts his own life at risk; an excellent motorcycle chase that isn't as good as the one in Woo's instalment yet still finds character development in its explosions; and nice, warm beats for Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and Jeremy Renner that don't drag. The picture's failures are, ironically, failures of patience in allowing Cruise's moments on the stage to be uninterrupted. It's the difference between how John Badham wanted to shoot the dance sequences in Saturday Night Fever...and how they were eventually shot. The movie looks away too often when it should have just taken the time to appreciate the pre-eminent action-movie star in the United States doing whatever it takes to create something with weight. And what does it say that Cruise has, this time around, allowed a female agent to be the emotional centre, the physical equal, and the character with depth in the one property that is undeniably his? Rogue Nation is a superior action film in a series that, with its fourth and fifth instalments, has genuinely hit its stride. Suddenly and subversively, even as Cruise evolves into a kind of middle-aged white Jackie Chan, he's emerged, too, as something of a Sylvester Stallone cultural bellwether. Yeah, I'm a fan. Originally published: July 30, 2015.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Paramount brings Rogue Nation to Blu-ray in a resplendent 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. The majority of the film was shot in 'scope on 35mm, with the major exception of the underwater sequence, which became the guinea pig for the ARRI Alexa 65--a 6K camera--before it was used on The Revenant. In the pre-digital days, when FX elements were literally printed on top of each other, they were typically photographed in 65mm or VistaVision, since large formats yield more image detail up front than standard 35mm, toning down the loss of quality that occurs during optical compositing. A similar premise is at work here, as the Alexa 65 enabled the filmmakers to shoot wide and zoom in/recompose in post without a significant drop in PQ: The resultant 2K image proved comparable to the surrounding 35mm footage once anamorphic filters and faux-grain were applied. Certainly at home, the end product is seamless and filmic, the tack-sharp presentation mostly fine-tuning the grain but also enabling the viewer to distinguish between Panavision softness and legitimate focusing snafus, such as a dodgy close-up of Sean Harris at around the 50:25 mark. DP Robert Elswit's golden-hued palette is surprisingly supple, not to mention rich, and the lack of peaking on either end of the greyscale is impressive. Save for a few peculiarly noisy patches of grain, Rogue Nation looks pretty flawless on Blu-ray.
Sounds it, too. I couldn't sample the Dolby Atmos track, but the 7.1 TrueHD core is robust and immersive. The action scenes have a particular you-are-there quality, the sound emanating from everywhere and beneath in a dynamic, fluid way--no pun intended, in the case of the Torus break-in and its persuasively dense water vacuum. Voices, effects, and Joe Kraemer's music operate in total harmony, although the latter dominates when active in a way that is refreshingly old-school in this age of timid scoring. On another track, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise contribute much bonhomie to a feature-length audio commentary. Herein, more than anywhere else on the disc, it becomes clear just what a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants production this was despite the massive machinery behind it. At one point, they joke that they were doing reshoots before principal photography began, calling the scene where Benji gets off the subway in Vienna and receives intel from a stranger a "pre-reshoot." The ambitious opera sequence, which doesn't get any attention in the video-based extras, features several choice remarks from the pair. "McQ" recalls Cruise's disbelief that a simple out-the-back-door escape from the opera house had been scripted: "This is a Mission: Impossible movie!"--and so to the roof with a rope Cruise and costar Rebecca Ferguson went, despite the actress's professed fear of heights. (She also wore special rubber high heels that could be slipped off easily, unlike the real deal.) Later, McQ apologizes to the people of Casablanca for portraying the city as a desert. If he'd pointed the camera in the opposite direction, he says, audiences would've seen that it is indeed a bustling city.
HiDef making-of segments, produced in-house by Josh Tate, begin with "Lighting the Fuse" (6 mins.), in which McQ and Cruise separately cite musicals as their inspiration--or at least their justification--for prioritizing the film's set-pieces and allowing them to dictate plot and character. This sometimes led them down blind alleys, especially with regards to the villain's fate. "Cruise Control" (7 mins.)--I swear there must be a featurette with that title on 50% of Tom Cruise DVDs--finds Tommy talking about how he pushes studios to fly him around the world for promotional appearances so that he can not only maintain international superstardom but also tailor his career choices towards global expectations. He is clearly more brand than actor at this point, but he never comes across as mercenary. "Heroes" (8 mins.) rotely covers the supporting cast, with Ferguson receiving the requisite "trouper" label and even attention from producer J.J. Abrams, who shows up to gush.
The next three pieces--"Cruising Altitude" (8 mins.), "Mission: Immersible" (7 mins.), "Sand Theft Auto" (6 mins.)--are really where the meat is, as they examine the stuntwork in depth. We hear of all the dangers Cruise faced while dangling off the A400, including the possibility that the slightest acceleration past a predetermined speed could've driven Cruise's protective contact lenses into his head, or rendered his safety harness completely superfluous. Nevertheless, he did the ride eight times in a row. Cruise additionally learned to hold his breath for six minutes at a time for the Torus swim (a bit hatched on the set of Edge of Tomorrow) and accepted motorcycle-riding lessons from stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood in order to undo old habits. He truly is our Jackie Chan. Lastly, "The Mission Continues" (7 mins.) is a guide of sorts to the various Easter eggs McQ planted in Rogue Nation in reference to the earlier entries in this disjointed franchise, which he definitely understands beyond the parameters of one movie better than any previous director. I like his theory that the appeal of Ethan Hunt is that his dependence on technology makes audiences feel they could do what he does. Streaming trailers load automatically on startup (I got 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi one time and Terminator Genisys another); naturally, the BD packaging contains DVD and downloadable copies of the film, too.