The Spies Have It: Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, reviewed.

Tom Cruise in

The Mission: Impossible film series is 19, long enough in the tooth for its earlier installments to start to acquire the same time capsule effect that makes me love even the worst James Bond movies. I watched Brian De Palma’s 1996 Mission: Impossible the night after I saw the new one, subtitled Rogue Nation, and John Woo’s barely-related 2000 M:I-2 the night after that. Yep, blockbusters are different now.

Trying to articulate just how was part of the chore of writing my NPR review of the fifth impossible mission, from Jack Reacher writer/director Christopher McQuarrie. Short version: I liked it. But I had more thoughts about it than I could shoehorn into the review, so here’re a few outtakes.
— My favorite scene, at the Vienna State Opera during a performance of Turandot, does indeed recall the Tosca sequence from Quantum of Solace, the second Daniel Craig-starring Bond flick. The Tosca scene is the best part of that movie, too, but Rogue Nation improves upon the gag and is a stronger picture overall than Quantum of Solace. The editor who handled my Rogue Nation review thought the Turandot bit might be a homage to either The 39 Steps or The Manchurian Candidate, both of which I’ve seen but don’t recall clearly enough to decide whether I agree. (I do know that Quantum is better than you think.)

—When Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, receives his assignment in Rogue Nation, he’s in a record shop. His mission file is disguised as a vinyl album, which is a nice, understated Eager Egg: In the pilot episode of the Mission: Impossible TV series, way back in 1966, Agent Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) gets his assignment in exactly the same way. That was audiences’ first look at the “this message will self-destruct” convention that was, along with Lalo Schifrin’s theme music, the most memorable element of the franchise.

—I mention in my review that Cruise was 52 years old during filming of Rogue Nation, wherein he remains as agile and energetic as ever, continuing, as we’ve all been told many times, to perform his own stunts. Yeah, I feel a little dumb for repeating the does-his-own-stunts marketing line, but it’s a legit selling point for the series that features cooler stunts than any other. Check out this Vulture piece from three months ago, where film critic Bilge Ebiri gets stuntman Randy Butcher to watch Tom Cruise’s most famous stunt scenes and evaluate Tom Cruise’s claim that Tom Cruise’s stuntman is Tom Cruise. He upholds it, mostly. Butcher: “I know it’s not cool to like Tom Cruise anymore, but I’m a fan of his. I think he’s an underrated actor. His physical mannerisms complement what’s happening inside his mind. I like watching him act.”

—I wanted to point out that this is the same age Sean Connery was when he was lured back to play Bond for the final time, in 1983’s non-canonical Never Say Never Again. Connery looks paunchy and tired in that film.

—I didn’t find a place to say that Hunt behaves more like a deranged cult leader than ever in Rogue Nation. Which is weird, since doubling down on his investment in this series seems to be Cruise’s primary strategy for holding on to his stardom in the wake of his Scientology-related P.R. problems over the last decade. (My friend Amy Nicholson, author of Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, sees his “retreat” into action pictures over the last 10 or 15 years as more a of a loss than I do.) The best piece I’ve seen during Grantland’s “Tom Cruise Week” coverage is this one, from Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Five Came Back author Mark Harris, about three transformative Cruise performances from 1989-99.

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