One of the things I’ve notices about the Mission: Impossible movies is that the biggest threat to the world seems to be the ones charged with protecting it. In the first Mission: Impossible, the bad guy turns out to be a few rogue IMF agents. Same in M:I-2, and to a lesser extent, in M:I-3. Ghost Nation doesn’t involve anybody going rogue, but the entire IMF gets disavowed, so there’s that. By the time we get to the aptly named Rogue Nation, we’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe if the entire world just shut down its intelligence services, there would be a whole lot less mayhem. As it is, the notion of rogue agents becomes the central conceit here, with the story hinging upon the IMF’s prosecution for its antics over the years, as well as the emergence of a secret army of rogue agents from around the world that carries out acts of global havoc for a price. I have said before that these secrecy spy groups seem to suffer from terrible loyalty problems. I’m glad somebody finally noticed and decided to make an entire movie about it. Let’s me know I’m not crazy.
In Rogue Nation, the action begins as our hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and colleagues Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) stop an illicit shipment of nerve agent facilitated by the Syndicate. The Syndicate retaliates in style, as its leader Solomon Lane—himself a rogue MI6 agent—captures Hunt and sentences him to death by torture. Hunt only escapes with the help of Ilsa Faust, another ex-MI6 Syndicate agent who is more than she appears. But by the time Hunt can tell anyone about the Syndicate, CIA Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) disbands the IMF, partly over a simmering grudge over Hunt’s infiltration of Langley waaaaay back it the first Mission: Impossible movie.
Hunt responds by carrying out an off-the-books operation against the Syndicate, and despite the help of Dunn, Brandt, long-time ally Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and the recurring appearances of Faust, they all seem way out of their depth. No matter what move Hunt pulls, the Syndicate seems to be a step ahead of him. Solomon Lane is another Ethan Hunt. He thinks like him. He plans like him. And he has been waiting to a guy like Hunt to come after him for years, so he’s prepared. Maybe if Hunt had the full resources of the IMF at his disposal things would be different, but he doesn’t. And what’s worse, there appears to be a strong link between the Syndicate and the British government that makes Hunt’s quest to take this group down all but…well…we hate to say “impossible,” but there you have it.
Like any of its recent predecessors, Rogue Nation serves up a by-now expected plate of exotic locales, exciting chases, high-end operations, narrow escapes, secrets within secrets, cool international locations, and a MacGuffin truly worth fighting for. Ilsa Faust swiftly becomes a favored addition to the cast as an agent whose deeply layered loyalties make Ethan’s troubles with the CIA feel like a guy who just never got around to dealing with old parking tickets.
What makes this movie work so well, though, is the Hunt’s dual challenge of being doubted by his masters (not just in loyalty, but in skill) while also being thwarted by his doppelganger. Hunt’s caught in a horrible Catch-22. The CIA thinks he’s a rogue agent, deep down, and as long as he can’t prove the Syndicate exists, the CIA thinks Hunt is the Syndicate. And even if loyalty weren’t the issue, the IMF’s methods are under question as well; but they would be justified if they could stop something like the Syndicate, but Solomon Lane bests Hunt in every contest. But on both fronts, Ethan can’t do what’s needed, and as we watch him struggle, we feel a mounting frustration for him. People who save the world shouldn’t be thrown under the bus. And yet, there’s Hunt with tire tracks all over him. He doesn’t seem to mind, though, probably because guys like Hunt don’t become who they are by pausing to mope over the unfairness of it all. They just keep on figuring out solutions to problems that don’t seem to have any.
Of course, this is a Mission: Impossible movie, so you know things are going to turn out at least reasonably well for our heroes, but this one really makes you dangle before letting you off the hook. The final confrontation between Hunt and Lane is especially gratifying because of the way it turns Lane’s whole cat-and-mouse thing back against him. But the real moment of truth is when Hunt pulls off what is easily the most audacious switcheroo sting of the entire series, and he does it right in front of a flabbergasted CIA Director Hunley—a guy who never really did his homework on the IMF but doubted them anyway. The world is full of folks would rather punch down than reach up, but to see such dangerous skepticism disproven so spectacularly is gratifying to anybody who has ever carried out a tough job for an ungrateful boss.
Hunt’s heroism and dedication mean even more when you remember that in every mission briefing, he is given a chance to walk away. His mission is only should he choose to accept it, but he always does. You’d think that the more he does this spy thing, the more reason he’d have to politely decline the next world-saving suicide mission that comes his way. But Hunt is the guy who knows that when you’re the one to call, you always pick up the phone. That’s something everybody should aspire to.