There are few actors as polarizing as Tom Cruise. Bring his name up in a crowd and you get a reaction smorgasbord. Some love him. Others shrug. And there’s always one who hates him for reasons they can’t quite put into words. Personally, I don’t think there’s much to debate. Sure, he believes in Xenu and jumps on couches when he gets excited, but Tom Cruise makes good movies. Period. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the latest one.
Another maker of good movies is the Mission: Impossible franchise. This is the fifth film in the series, coming off the heels of its best entry yet – 2011’s Ghost Protocol. Rogue Nation isn’t as complete a film as that one, but it’s every bit as exciting. It’s rare to find a franchise hitting its stride this late in the game, not to mention the mere four year timetable between films. Spielberg and Co. had fourteen years to make a worthy follow-up to Jurassic Park III. Whoops.
Tom Cruise once again plays Ethan Hunt, the leader of a top secret agency called the Impossible Mission Force (IMF). The IMF specializes in missions other agencies won’t touch. Using a combination of high-tech gadgetry and ingenuity, the IMF team works together to save the world. The latest threat to world security is a group of rogue agents called “The Syndicate.” Led by Solomon Lane (chillingly played by Sean Harris), “The Syndicate” wishes to disrupt the status quo through increasingly violent means.
To make matters worse, the CIA, tired of the IMF acting without oversight, has ordered a complete shut-down of the agency. Ethan must stitch together a team in secret to stop Lane, all the while avoiding his own government with orders to shoot on sight.
The best parts of the Mission: Impossible movies have always been the missions themselves. Every mission begins with a presentation describing the target and the reasons why success is impossible. Ethan always gets the same cocky glint in his eye. Impossible, you say? We’ll just see about that.
Next comes the specifics, which we’re usually kept in the dark about. We know the basic goal, but the details are hazy. This allows for maximum tension as we never know whether something’s going wrong or according to plan. The members of the IMF are spies. They don’t barge into rooms with guns blazing. They dwell in the shadows. They take on other identities. If the mission is successful, you won’t even know they were there.
This lends an exquisite ballet-like atmosphere to the action. One of the best scenes of the film takes place during an opera in Austria. Ethan tip toes around on high rises above the stage, waging a quiet war on thugs, as the opera booms below him. The music meshes beautifully with the action to become a work of art unto itself.
The Mission: Impossible films know how to crank the tension up in a hurry. In Ghost Protocol, there was the famous Dubai skyscraper scene with Ethan hanging by his fingernails off the tallest building in the world. Rogue Nation has several scenes that match that intensity. The best part of the trailer with Ethan clinging to the side of a jet is right at the beginning, as if to let us know there’s plenty more where that came from. The first two-thirds of the film runs entirely on cruise control (no pun intended), gliding perfectly from action to humor to set piece without a single missed beat.
If only the momentum could have carried to the end. The last act turns soggy with an excess of dialogue and an anti-climactic ending. Too bad. What came before felt like a classic in the making.
There are many similarities between the Mission: Impossible and James Bond franchises. Both have secret agents. Both have missions. Both have a “girl.” But there’s one key difference. James Bond is about one man saving the day. Mission: Impossible is about teamwork. Not a single IMF mission can succeed unless all the agents do their part. Not every part is glamorous, but they’re all essential.
The teamwork is what makes these movies fun. Every agent has a personality and a specialty, and it’s a blast seeing them play off each other. Special mention goes to Simon Pegg who’s become indispensible as computer nerd, Benji. Pegg excels at laugh out loud moments, but they’re always rooted in character, not celebrity. We laugh at Will Ferrell because he’s Will Ferrell. Simon Pegg becomes characters we actually care about. They all just happen to be funny.
The Body of Christ
I hope I’m not alone in admitting that, as a Western Christian who grew up on adventure films, I sometimes feel an urge to be the James Bond of the Church. I want to be front and center at the service project. I want to be on stage preaching to the masses. I want to be changing lives and taking names.
But Jesus calls us to something more like Mission: Impossible. He calls us to a body. First Corinthians 12 talks about what this body is supposed to look like. Everybody has a different role to play, but we’re all essential. Some are arms. Some are elbows. Some are feet. None are better than the other. We all need each other. Together, we’re the body of Christ.
Benji often complains about his role in the team. In Rogue Nation, he gets assigned his typical task of hiding behind the scenes in a barren room on a laptop. He quips, “Join the IMF. See the world. On a monitor. In a closet.”
We’re like this too sometimes. We want to be the charismatic pastor who brings everyone to tears and gets patted on the back afterward. But we’re not all called to be pastors. Some of us are called to set up chairs for the event. Some of us are called to pray for the service in a back room. Some of us are called to be plumbers, businessmen, and doctors. The Kingdom of God is breaking out all around us. God needs his people to be ready for action in every corner of the earth.
In the Gospels, we see a story of Jesus healing a man possessed by demons. After he’s in his right mind, the man’s first desire is to become one of Jesus’ disciples. But Jesus says no. Jesus tells him to stay behind and share what God has done for him. We all want to be part of the inner circle, but maybe that’s not our job. We all want to save the world by ourselves, but we’re called to a team. We need to be willing to play the part God assigns us, so that his mission can be accomplished on earth as it is in heaven.
More Redemptive Violence
Rogue Nation joins an endless line of Hollywood films that believes in the myth of redemptive violence. The “bad” guys need to be stopped by any means necessary. Save the “innocent.” Kill or be killed. But Christians know that justice isn’t bad guys getting what they deserve. Justice is bad guys getting transformed and set free.
I was surprised, however, to see Rogue Nation address this very dilemma. Ethan’s love interest, Ilsa, has the audacity to claim that the government agencies they work for aren’t all that different from “The Syndicate.” At the end of the day, they’re both using the same means to accomplish their goals. One group just believes they’re doing it for the right reasons. She says, “We’re only on the right side, because that’s what we choose to believe.”
The Mission: Impossible films may still be part of the problem, but I’m pleased they’re at least willing to question it. That’s a rare thing in this genre. And it’s further evidence of the intelligence this franchise brings to the table. Here is some of the best action of the summer, and you don’t have to leave your brain at the door to enjoy it.
Tom Cruise makes good movies. Avoid them all you want. That’s just more leg room for the rest of us.