Devil’s Advocate is a new Arts column that takes a second look at universally-liked pieces of media.
2015 is the year of espionage. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” polarized audiences with its twist on the genre. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” remerged from intellectual property ether as a summer blockbuster. And, of course, the next Bond, “Spectre,” waits in the wings.
But the one spy film that has made the greatest impression of all (at least so far), is the fifth “Mission: Impossible” entry. “Rogue Nation” has been lauded for its impressive set pieces, all-star cast, and constant fun. It may indeed have all of these in spades, but this is Devil’s Advocate. This is an article where I argue that these qualities do not make for a good movie.
First, any good espionage film cannot rest on set pieces alone. This far out from its release, what remains memorable from “Rogue Nation?” The opening on the plane perhaps. The opera sequence, surely. The underwater heist, certainly, as this is where director Christopher McQuarrie throws all of his best punches. But what else? What stands out from the plot? Where is the intriguing character development? “Rogue Nation?” is a movie that is unable to escalate. In its final 40 minutes, it stumbles under its own momentum, unsure of what to do with it. Our villain (wonderfully played by Sean Harris) stops being interesting as soon as he becomes fallible. The film wraps up like a checklist, resolving every plot thread fully, but also unfufillingly.
Tom Cruise, as always, is the action star master. He knows what the role requires, as does Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and his other companions. I will take a moment to note that Rebecca Ferguson and her character, Ilsa Faust, is an impeccable element of the film. But this is not Cruise’s first rodeo. Compare his talents in “Rogue Nation” to “Edge of Tomorrow,” or even another “Mission: Impossible” installment, and you’ll find a surprising dullness here. For once, Cruise merely does what is required.
The franchise, like Cruise, can only keep doing this for so long. “Rogue Nation” plays every trope in the book, and does so with such calmness that I was bored for the majority of the running time. To be fair, espionage (and most action/adventure) films rely on tropes to survive. But it’s how they execute them in new and interesting ways that make them meaningful. Look at “Kingsman,” which takes the idea of a cartoon villain from the early days of Bond and uses him as a biting social commentary on classism. In “Rogue Nation,” the plot’s convoluted nature is a mask for its banality; everything remains at face value. An evil terrorist plot to take over the world is used as a quick quip about the abuse of power, but otherwise merely serves its role in the plot.
Really, the fact that “Rogue Nation” has received more attention and praise than “Kingsman” is nearly criminal. “Kingsman” doubles as one of the most enjoyable spy films in years, while also dropping the rug out from under many Bondian sensibilities. It is immensely fun from start to finish.
“Rogue Nation” is quite fun as well. But it also outstays its welcome. Like “Skyfall,” it feels more like a strung-together chain of set pieces rather than a cohesive film. But unlike “Skyfall,” many of these segments fail to support their own weight. Our attachment to characters comes from “Ghost Protocol” (and previous installments) more than the film currently being watched. It fails to justify existing as its own entity within the franchise. The main takeaway from this latest “Mission: Impossible” is that people want more of them. For me, though, it’s that grand set pieces do not guarantee a great movie.