The Box Office:
Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation comes courtesy of Skydance Productions, Bad Robot, TC Productions, and Alibaba Pictures. As always, the distributor is Paramount/Viacom Inc. The Tom Cruise action thriller debuts Thursday night on around 3,800 locations, including around 400 IMAX screens. It is because of those valuable IMAX auditoriums that we’re getting this film so early. The picture was originally intended to open on December 23rd, 2015, but it was moved out of the way of Walt Disney’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Generally when a movie splits to avoid competition it ends up debuting later (DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 3 moved from December 23rd to January 29th of next year), but this fifth Ethan Hunt caper instead moved up five months to July 31st. The prime reason for the date was access to IMAX screens, so it’s a little odd that Paramount didn’t screen it for us last night in IMAX, but I don’t want to complain.
The film is budgeted at $150 million, or $10m more than Ghost Protocol and $10m less than Mission: Impossible III. Tracking is a bit low on this one, with Paramount proclaiming an expected Fri-Sun debut of a bit over $40m. That would be well below the $46m Fri-Sun debut of Mission: Impossible, the $57m Fri-Sun opening of Mission: Impossible II (both on Wed-Mon Memorial Day weekends), and the “viewed as a disappointment” $47m May 2006 drop of Mission: Impossible III. While I’m a little surprised by the tracking, to be fair, the marketing isn’t really offering anything “new” this time around. The kink is that Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol opened in Christmas of 2011 and ended up with one of the leggiest runs ever. It opened with $12.7m on around 425 IMAX screens in an early debut before earning around $80m by the end of Christmas weekend and legged its way to $209.3m domestic (that’s a 16.4x multiplier) and an eye-popping $694m worldwide.
That makes it Cruise’s third biggest domestic hit (behind the $215m of M: I 2 and the $232m of War of the Worlds) and the largest worldwide hit of his career. Of course, Brad Bird’s IMAX-enhanced comic thriller is frankly one of the best action movies of modern times, and it benefited from a comparably low-key December and a relatively low-key January in which to prosper. Paramount is hoping for a better opening weekend on the strength of reviews and/or strong legs due to word of mouth. Both are quite possible, as summer somewhat quiets down after next weekend’s The Fantastic Four. I’m not saying Rogue Nation is going to have legs like The Fugitive, which earned rave reviews and was primed as summer’s last big blockbuster in August of 1993 and ran the tables for weeks on end, ending with a $183m domestic total off a $23m debut weekend, but that’s the precedent that Paramount is hoping for adjusted for the frontloaded reality of today’s movie-going patterns. So even if it does open with “only” $40m, I wouldn’t be so quick to write this one off on Sunday morning.
Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation is a comedy of errors. The film is not just filled with jaw-dropping action and stunts but also filled with delightfully human comedy which brings our would-be super heroic agents down to earth. Like Brad Bird’s franchise-reviving fourth installment, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s fifth installment of the 19-year old spy franchise puts a premium on befuddlement and exasperation. Oh sure, it’s thrilling when things go exactly according to plan for Tom Cruise’s super spy and his cohorts, but it’s even more thrilling when things go terribly wrong. From the opening scene to the finale, there is a premium placed on believing our eyes. That suspension of disbelief is achieved not just by practical stunt work and seamless special effects, but by a refusal to make any of this look remotely easy for anyone involved. The plot for this fifth Mission: Impossible film is pretty routine, and some of the action scenes feel a little familiar. But the execution is top-notch, and the very real potential for failure gives the proceedings a knowing kick while creating real suspense aside from mere big-budget spectacle.
The plot for this one is pretty straightforward: The IMF has been disbanded, which is something that arguably should have happened when Sean Ambrose went rogue while on assignment and crashed a passenger jet into a mountain, but I digress. This leaves Ethan Hunt “out in the cold” as he finally zones in on the mysterious “anti-IMF” group of super terrorists he has been hunting for the last year or so. Nicknamed “the Syndicate,” this glorified Spectre/Injustice League organization has employed former intelligence operatives from every country in the world to make large-scale mayhem, but Hunt is the only man who really believes they exist. Into this picture waltzes one Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who may or may not be playing both sides but seems to have a nasty habit of saving Hunt’s life from time to time. What happens next is a bit of high-octane action and old-school skullduggery, delivered in high style and panache to spare.
Yes, you’ll recognize individual bits and pieces from all four prior Mission: Impossible films, but the ingredients are boiled into an unquestionably crowd pleasing and relentlessly entertaining stew. Here’s a fun surprise: That “Tom Cruise hangs off a plane” stunt that has been the center of the marketing campaign is actually the film’s curtain raiser. That the movie opens mid-mission with Hunt and his compatriots doing their thing is just one way that this sequel somewhat resembles the Brian DePalma original. This is the most explicitly cloak-and-dagger installment since the 1996 original. While it’s not nearly as dark and/or cynical, it has a certain sense of “What is the point of all this spy games nonsense?” pessimism that made the original film feel like Mission: Impossible filtered through John Le Carre. There are hints that the decades of impossible missions, and the sacrifices they have entailed, have taken their toll on Ethan Hunt. The picture makes a case that even if Hunt is correct that he may not be the most reliable narrator.
Alec Baldwin, as the incoming CIA chief, is hilariously at his wits end looking for Hunt, and he makes a pretty good case for the irrelevance of both Ethan Hunt and the organization for which he has given his life. If the last film was about Hunt overcoming his reluctance and cynicism and embracing his role as a top IMF agent, then this film acts as a validation of the relevance of both the Mission: Impossible franchise and Tom Cruise as an action star. Pretty much every big film that Tom Cruise has made over the last decade has acted as a would-be affirmation of his vitality as a movie star and/or a box office draw, but that subtext has extra potency this time around in a year filled with age-old franchises being made anew. The idea of Hunt validating himself and finding himself realizing what a ghost he has become adds a kick to what has always been the franchise’s core flaw, that Ethan Hunt has no real distinct personality beyond “Tom Cruise as action man.”
The first two sequels, following Jim Phelp’s devastating betrayal in the first film, dealt with Hunt trying to make a life for himself outside of his work. In Ghost Protocol, Hunt accepted his role as a leader in the IMF and became a ghost, and this film hints at the mental and emotional cost of that definitive choice. Oh sure, he is willing to go out on a limb to protect his friends and fellow operatives and he makes an effort to ensure a just result for the mysterious agent who seems to be helping him, but there are no illusions of anything beyond the job. It doesn’t dwell on this and really only discusses the first and fourth in terms of continuity, but the fifth film of this famously stand-alone self-contained action franchise does work a little better if you’ve seen the prior films and can thus trace the “passion” of Ethan Hunt from beginning to end. This subtext adds a token dimension to what otherwise is a thin plot on which to hang a series of fantastic action sequences.
And yes, perhaps getting back to the would-be point, the action is this film is superb. You’ve seen bits and pieces in the previews, but I can say that most of the really fun beats and payoffs have been left out of the trailers, so I won’t go into details here. There is indeed a mid-film set piece that attempts to measure up to the CIA vault break-in from M:I 1 and the Burj Khalifa climb in Ghost Protocol, and it is truly something you’ve never seen before. But I was actually partial to the act one climax, set during an opera, which is filled with smaller-scale action theatrics and proves a master class of suspense building and clockwork timing. And with all of the talk about overly big blockbuster action finales over the last few years, I am pleased to inform you that the climax for Rogue Nation is comparatively human-sized. Through thick and thin, the emphasis is as much on character chemistry and suspense as it is on pure action. The flabbergasted reactions of the participants is as kicky as the fights and escapes themselves, and there is a real joy to watching this team (including Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, and Simon Pegg) go to work.
Ferguson offers a complicated femme fatale, and the film allows her to both kick butt and get her own butt kicked as well. The film refreshingly doesn’t invent a female counterpart for her to square off against, although the film could have used more than one major female character. The film looks gorgeous, feeling somewhat tighter and claustrophobic than the prior installment but always framing and cutting the action for maximum comprehension. And through it all is Tom Cruise, doing his thing, running his lungs out to save you and yours, willing if not outright hoping to kill himself in the pursuit of your maximum entertainment. You can make the case that Hunt’s sacrifice for the sake of his country and Cruise’s personal sacrifices for the sake of our entertainment aren’t that different in the end, especially if you view IMF as a variation on that religious group that has caused Cruise so much pleasure and pain all at once.
Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation is another superb installment of a shockingly consistent action franchise. By turning the series into something of a director’s sandbox, with each new filmmaker basically making their version of a Mission: Impossible movie, Cruise and company have crafted a long-running franchise where every new installment feels like a wholly fresh motion picture. Hollywood has been looking for the “American James Bond” for decades on end, yet such a concept has been sitting under their noses the whole time. With the flabbergastingly entertaining and unquestionably exciting Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, Tom Cruise has established his defining action franchise as perhaps the best ongoing spy action franchise around. It is a little shocking to realize that I find myself looking forward to a new Mission: Impossible movie with greater anticipation than I do for the latest James Bond movie.
Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation has slowly allowed Ethan Hunt to become a distinct character. He is course partially defined by the actor who plays him but slowly emerging as a tragic personification of the man who gives all for so-called national security only to realize he has nothing but the job and little to look forward to beyond the next mission. And with Rogue Nation, Tom Cruise has finally made Ethan Hunt into not just “Tom Cruise – Action Man” but perhaps the defining role of his long career. The twist is that it may be his most autobiographical as well.