My Florida vacation coincided nicely with the release of “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” the fifth entry in the franchise. Both promised to be escapist retreats from the humdrum responsibilities of real life.
It is no coincidence, however, that I wrote some of this review at an altitude of 34,000 feet, aboard a jetliner elegantly, and just as often turbulently, defying the laws of physics. I wanted to feel what it was like to be Tom Cruise, who, as an action star, has a similar relationship with the natural world. In his latest outing as super spy Ethan Hunt, he clings effortlessly to the exterior of a cargo plane during takeoff, and for a considerable amount of time after it, all before the opening credits. His team members, especially the tech wiz Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who several years ago in Dubai watched Hunt climb the world’s tallest skyscraper, strain to believe it. Even I, a kindred daredevil, was impressed.
But as the adrenaline from my high-altitude typing subsided, my Cruise-inspired mania mitigated by the pedestrian reality of coach seating, I realized I had never wanted to be Tom Cruise at all, never, in fact, could be him. That, I think, is the paradox of his appeal. Regardless of his public persona, Cruise, who performs his own stunts, is charming on the big screen, yet somehow alien at the same time, not so much a freak of nature as an anomaly, a member of a species to which only he belongs. This is why we don’t mind when his action-movie roles are indistinguishable from the man himself. Tom Cruise, not Ethan Hunt, is the show, an unparalleled spectacle of cinematic athleticism.
And yet, in “Rogue Nation” — a wonderfully outrageous, occasionally generic thriller from writer-director Christopher McQuarrie — Cruise meets his equal, chases her at dangerous speeds on a motorcycle, flees with her down dark corridors, protects her in a gunfight and is saved by her twice. He never once outshines her. Her name is Rebecca Ferguson, and she plays the British operative Ilsa Faust, a woman whose shifting allegiances complicate Hunt’s and his team’s attempts to dismantle a highly-skilled terrorist group known as the Syndicate.
Faust/Ferguson is utterly competent and totally convincing, whether she’s in a shadowy knife fight with a Syndicate goon twice her size or frustrated with the unreasonable demands of her weasel of a boss. She’s also undeniably sexy, especially in a gold dress during a tense sequence staged at the Vienna opera house worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, and also inspired by his “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” But what makes Faust such a remarkable character in this genre — the one with a shameful record in its depiction of women — is that Ferguson’s sexuality, and her competence, emanate entirely from her; they are not a movie-poster product of the camera’s gaze. She resembles a real human being to the extent that an action heroine can, as opposed to a gun-wielding male fantasy. Far from being eye candy, she’s genuinely beautiful, visually nourishing.
She is not, however, a statement, unlike Furiosa, Charlize Theron’s feminist badass in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Faust is simply a woman, surrounded by men on and off the screen, being herself, for her reasons. She more closely resembles Emily Blunt’s legendary soldier in last summer’s “Edge of Tomorrow,” also scripted by McQuarrie and starring Cruise. That film featured an obligatory, eleventh-hour snog between the two leads. Though “Rogue Nation” hints at such a romance, the chemistry here is defined by mutual respect, an often wordless understanding. Both Faust and Hunt are wearied by the spy life, by the emotional gymnastics of deep cover and double crosses. When she proposes they disappear together, you can see in Hunt’s eyes the temptation of a life in repose. In the moment, his otherwise tense physique — battered by constant running, jumping, shooting, fighting — eases up a little, almost committing wholeheartedly to the idea, even if Hunt knows in his heart that he belongs in the field.
For all of the slick gadgetry of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise — fast cars, cool tablet computers, and the rest of the techy trappings of espionage — it’s really about the human body, the information it gives away under stress, the immense trauma it can endure. Because McQuarrie frames his action set pieces to account for spatial clarity and geography, revealing the physical stakes of each scene, you wince when Hunt hits his head during a heroic stunt, and you fear for him when he nearly drowns in a high-tech server room flooded with water. This sense of jeopardy, of danger, is what distinguishes these movies from Marvel’s offerings. Though still very much a cartoon, two-dimensional and elastic, Hunt is not necessarily invincible. His days of derring-do may eventually come to an end. I hope Cruise never stops.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on August 6, 2015.