Popcorn Perfection

I am on the record as saying that I like many of Tom Cruise’s movies. He may be a weirdo in real life, but he’s a fantastic entertainer. He’s very good at what he does, and his latest film, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”, is probably my second-favorite summer movie this year.

I’m a big fan of the Mission: Impossible series. Last week, I re-watched all four of the previous films in anticipation of the new one, which I then saw on Friday. I thoroughly enjoyed all of them, with only one possible exception.

The first film in the series was released all the way back in 1996. Cruise was in his mid-thirties then, but man, the whole time I was watching the first movie I kept thinking he looked like he was about 17. I didn’t use to like the first movie all that much, but I have a newfound appreciation for it. It’s fairly light on action but is more concerned with intrigue and the many twists and turns of the plot.

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The plot is complicated and there are still some things about it that are slightly baffling to me, but I can see how the various pieces of the puzzle fit together, even if some of the details continue to elude me. It’s a tense, well-made spy thriller that contains one truly iconic sequence: the famous vault heist, where Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt is lowered from the ceiling into the CIA’s most secure vault. It’s a wonderfully tense scene that still holds up as one of the best, most suspenseful sequences in the series.

Unfortunately, its sequel, Mission: Impossible 2, is by far the worst film in the series. The first entry was directed by Brian de Palma, who crafted a tense, complex spy thriller. MI2 was directed by John Woo, well known for his particular brand of super-stylized, slow-mo, firing-two-guns-whilst-flying-through-the-air action filmmaking. Now don’t get me wrong, Woo’s films can be great fun (if you haven’t seen Hardboiled you really should, it’s amazing), but his style is not suited to a Mission: Impossible movie.

In stark contrast to the first film, MI2 is a much more straightforward action movie, lacking the twists and turns of the plot, which is of the fairly dull “Stop the bad guy from selling the incredibly lethal supervirus to the highest bidder” variety. The first half of the movie is mostly buildup for the second half, which is full of ludicrous shootouts and slow-mo flip kicks. Seriously, this is the kind of movie where, instead of simply punching a henchman, the hero performs a ridiculous-looking slow-motion backflip kick.

MI2 doesn’t even feel like a Mission: Impossible movie, it’s title could have been “Generic Action Movie” and that would have been entirely appropriate. At one point near the end of the film, I noticed that the villain has these big containers in his lair, which are clearly labeled HAZARDOUS WASTE. Geez, dude, you probably shouldn’t just leave that kind of stuff lying around in your hideout, you just know a grenade is eventually going to find its way over there.

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The movie’s final showdown is a mess of over-the-top kung fu and those ridiculous slow-mo flip kicks that John Woo couldn’t seem to get enough of. Tom Cruise has an awful hairdo in this movie, and his stupid emo hair flops around all over the place during the final fight, which is just silly. Oh, and this is preceded by a truly absurd scene where Ethan and the villain do this kind of motorcycle joust, where they drive at each other on motorcycles and then throw themselves off the motorcycles and collide in midair, and the motorcycles fly through the air and explode for absolutely no reason.

To top it all off, the end credits feature tracks from Metallica and, uh, Limp Bizkit. Wikipedia informs me that the soundtrack also featured such “artists” as Rob Zombie, Godsmack, and a band called (I kid you not) Butthole Surfers. Good luck getting that image out of your head.

Let’s move on, shall we? The third Mission: Impossible movie is one of my favorites, not just in the M:I series, but, well, generally. It’s a top-notch action thriller that also features the series’ best villain: Owen Davian, a ruthless arms dealer played brilliantly by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. The third film was the film directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, who gets a lot of flack from various corners of the internet, but I’ve always been a fan.

He fills the movie full of action, but gives it a much more grounded feel than the second entry. It’s less stylized and much more engaging. The plot is full of twists and turns, but crucially, they are twists and turns that still make sense. The movie also gives Ethan a personal life, and gives solid character development to him and his wife Julia. It’s nice that the movie acknowledges that Ethan the superspy can still have a personal life (although this is largely abandoned in the subsequent films) and it humanizes Ethan quite a bit.

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The movie is so full of action that it might be a bit overwhelming for some viewers, but I loved every second of it. It’s a tremendously exciting film that is one of my favorite summer action blockbusters. The bridge sequence, where Ethan and his team are attacked by bad guys with a predator drone, is one of my favorite action sequences of recent years. The movie also features one of the most satisfying villain deaths I’ve ever seen in a movie, where Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain gets run over by a truck. That sounds a bit anticlimactic, but it’s actually incredibly satisfying. The movie’s ending is great and its opening is also great: the first line of the movie is “We’ve put an explosive charge in your head.” Oh, SNAP. You know shit just got real when there’s an explosive charge in your freaking HEAD. Now THAT is how you start a movie.

The fourth movie, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, is similarly excellent. Ghost Protocol was the live-action directorial debut of Brad Bird, who previously directed several acclaimed animated films (such as The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles). Bird proves to be a sure-handed director of live-action, and orchestrates several impressive action sequences. This is the movie with the famous Burj Khalifa sequence, in which Tom Cruise scales the tallest building in the world (yes, Cruise actually did that).

The plot sounds simple, with Ethan and his team trying to stop a rogue nuclear extremist from inciting nuclear war between the US and Russia. In contrast to the second and third films, in which the villains had small armies of henchmen, Ghost Protocol is notable in that its villain has a grand total of one henchman. And yet, these two guys almost cause nuclear war. I really like this movie’s more stripped-down approach. The stakes in the film are very high, since Ethan and his team have no backup and have to rely mostly on each other because their equipment keeps malfunctioning.

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One of the things I like most about these movies is the way that they emphasize teamwork. Sure, Ethan Hunt is a badass, but he wouldn’t get very far without his teammates. Every member of the team is important, and every one of them contributes. I really like that.

This trend continues in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the triumphant fifth entry in the series. In it, Ethan and his team must track down the Syndicate, a rogue terrorist organization responsible for all sorts of dastardly deeds. They must once again do this with no backup, since the Impossible Mission Force, or IMF, has once again been disbanded, this time by a pompous bureaucrat played by Alec Baldwin, who is admittedly pretty great at playing pompous bureaucrats.

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If I have one complaint about this series of films, it’s that they tend to fall back on the same plot elements a bit too often. Ethan and his team have gone rogue or the IMF has been disavowed in four of the five films. That aspect of the plot is a bit repetitive, but the movies are so consistently entertaining that I can forgive a little plot rehashing.

Rogue Nation was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who worked with Cruise on Jack Reacher and also co-wrote Edge of Tomorrow, which was one of my favorite movies last year. His film strikes a perfect balance between thrilling action and international intrigue.

One of the film’s strongest assets is the character of Ilsa Faust, a slinky, sexy secret agent played by a Swedish actress named Rebecca Ferguson. Ferguson is a relative newcomer, but I certainly hope this is a star-making role for her, because she’s awesome. She plays a character whose loyalties are in question for pretty much the entire movie, and Ferguson really nails the conflicting aspects of her character. She’s also great as a foil for Ethan, since she proves herself capable of doing anything he can do on multiple occasions. She’s also not overly sexualized and exists as more than just a potential love interest for the hero, and it’s really refreshing to see such a strong female character portrayed in this way. Ferguson gets my vote for breakout star of the year, she tackles a tricky role and absolutely kills it. She niftily steals the movie right out from under Tom Cruise’s nose.

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The film’s action sequences are also excellent. McQuarrie proves himself to be a more than capable action director, deftly avoiding the extreme close-ups, shaky camerawork, and rapid-fire editing that can make action sequences hard to follow. The action scenes in the film benefit from a strong sense of spatial relationships, in that you always understand where things are in relation to each other. This is especially important in the riveting Vienna opera house sequence, in which a complex cat-and-mouse game plays out. It would have been easy to get lost in such a complex sequence, but McQuarrie’s confident direction ensures that the viewer is always able to follow the action.

Other highlights include a thrilling motorcycle chase, an underwater heist that is as nail-bitingly tense as the vault heist in the original film or the Burj Khalifa sequence in Ghost Protocol, and the much-hyped plane stunt, in which Ethan desperately clings to the side of a cargo plane as it takes off. All of these sequences look great and are riveting to watch. Cruise proves once again that he’s game for all manner of insanely dangerous stunts, and his commitment enhances the film’s realism and makes it all the more exciting to watch as a result.

Other than Cruise and Ferguson, the supporting characters are also great, with solid work from Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames and the always-great Simon Pegg. All of these actors have great chemistry and there’s a sense that they’ve all been through this kind of thing before, they understand the stakes but they know what they’re doing and they know that they can rely on each other.

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The film’s villain, the head of the Syndicate, is a bespectacled baddie by the name of Solomon Lane. Lane is played by an English actor named Sean Harris, whose raspy voice practically oozes menace. There’s also a terrifying henchman nicknamed the Bone Doctor, who you just know is seriously bad news.

I really love the Mission: Impossible movies. They are perfect popcorn movies, and Rogue Nation continues the series in fine fashion, offering tense and thrilling action, a plot that keeps you guessing, great acting, and a fine performance from one of the breakout stars of the year. What more could you ask for?

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