Every time one of these comes out, I find myself uttering the same complaint – yes, all very well, but how about a Mission: Imposssible film in which the IMF are given an impossible mission and then carry it out. Yet again, this flirts with Bruce Geller’s format only to go off-book quickly and pile an undeeded extra layer of impossibility on the team by forcing them to carry out various heists and scams while on the run from their own side and improvising with whatever comes to hand. Yet again, thanks to the mix of a decent plot (supplied by director Christopher McQuarrie) and outstanding action/stunt sequences, the result is solidly entertaining … though quibbles arise from the way all three of star Tom Cruise’s back-up men (Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg as characters with names that still haven’t registered) are mostly comedy relief … the fact that the cynical vision of international espionage (here, it turns out that British Intelligence has created an Evil IMF as an exercise and are surprised to find it’s gone rogue and is making trouble) is so weightless and fantastical, even when compared with the Bourne or Jack Ryan films. The spell of the IM format depends on not asking the questions a politician (Alec Baldwin) asks in an opening hearing about the illegal, unconsititutional, high-handed, unethical and dangerous methods our fantasy heroes deploy to pull off their capers. It’s mentioned that the IMF have been around for 40 years, though the fact that the TV show’s hero was rebooted as a villain in the first of the film series sours the continuity somewhat – and there’s no sense that ‘the Syndicate’, the shadowy evil organisation taken down here, are related to the euphemism-for-the-mafia Syndicate of later seasons of the show (and even the theatrical fix-up Mission Impossible vs the Mob).
It opens with a set-piece stunt that finds Cruise’s Ethan Hunt clinging to the outside of a transport plane with no apparent CGI fakery, then gets into a seemingly classic MI scenario in a London record shop as Hunt receives a disc which should outline his next mission only to find that he’s being addressed not by his control voice but by the head of the Syndicate and the self-destruct function traps him in a booth full of knock-out gas. He wakes up shirtless and tied to a pole, about to be tortured, but escapes thanks to a double- or triple-agent, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who keeps showing up again to ensnare him in more schemes. It’s a series of mini-challenges to be met – a night at a Viennese opera where several guns are aimed at the Chancellor of Austria, a computer file whose retrieval depends on Hunt swimming through the cooling tanks of a Moroccan power plant, a temporary abduction of the British Prime Minister (Tom Hollander) so he can unlock the file on a copy of the flash-drive, a final face-off with the head of the Syndicate (a nicely clipped and sinister Sean Harris).
Thrown in are spectacular chases on various vehicles, including a bike dash along windy North African roads, and some high-stakes espionage volte faces, which convert the Baldwin CIA character from enemy to ally and cast doubt on British security boss Atlee (Simon McBurney). Villain Solomon Lane (Harris) turns out not to have got the Syndicate really going, since most of his scheme involves getting Hunt to steal or unlock things for him while Ilsa see-saws between factions. Oddly, the thing that makes this cohere is the nicely skewed flirtation between a now-unencumbered-by-romantic-ties Hunt (his comrades keep saying they’re his friends, but it’s hard to see why) and the ambiguous Ilsa. Ferguson gets a star-making turn as the spy with the deadly thigh-grip,and her scenes with McBurney touch on a sort of LeCarre-ish disillusion which can’t really come in to all the joshing-about with Simon Pegg (in funny disguises or a bomb vest) and Ving Rhames (as, frankly, a tech-savvy Peter Lupus). At the last, echoing the drug-filled listening booth, we get a genuine MI moment as Lane is duped into following a supposedly injured Hunt only to find he has dropped into a quickly-assembled bullet-proof cage where he is gassed to be turned over to the authorities. A signature of the series was the moment when the cool evil mastermind realises he’s been tricked, and Harris plays this with perfect cold fury. Oh, and Lalo Schifrin’s score – arranged by Joe Kraemer — is being better used than in most of the film series.