The fifth instalment of the popular spy franchise hits UK Blu-ray.
In the wake of the franchise-leading performance of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol it was inevitable that producer/star Tom Cruise would sign on for another, but after Brad Bird declined to return to the director’s chair Cruise turned to Chris McQuarrie. This was something of an unusual choice for a $150M budgeted blockbuster, McQuarrie being known more for his writing (he won the Best Screenplay Oscar for The Usual Suspects), although he had helmed The Way of the Gun in 2000 and more recently Jack Reacher in 2012, also with Cruise. But their relationship goes deeper than that, McQuarrie having written Valkyrie and also Edge of Tomorrow, so perhaps it wasn’t so strange that Cruise turned to his friend after all.
The movie, as with all the previous Missions, opens with an exciting teaser (yes, Cruise really is strapped onto the side of a plane as it takes off) and leads to a clash with the Director of the CIA at the US Senate, who’s petitioning for the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) to be shut down after their previous misadventures (San Francisco nearly getting nuked off the face of the Earth in Ghost Protocol). Longtime IMF operative Ethan Hunt is in London for a debrief, only for him to be waylaid by the nebulous Syndicate, a near-mythical terror organisation intent on undoing the IMF’s work. Hunt awakens in a grimy dungeon, primed for torture until a mysterious femme fatale helps him spring his escape, and now he’s on the run from friend and foe alike. What ensues is a global game of cat and mouse as the CIA stalk Hunt while he tracks the Syndicate and its shadowy leader, enlisting the aid of old comrades like Luther, Brandt and Benji as he plots to take down the Rogue Nation.
It’s a rare thing that a long-running series gets better with advancing age (he says, as Star Wars Episode VII is about to open) but it’s something of a trend of late; Skyfall resulted in Bond’s best ever box office bonanza, Furious 6 was a tremendous amount of fun (the ghoulish mishmash of Furious 7 took a lot more money but wasn’t half as good) and Ghost Protocol breathed spectacular new life into a franchise that had stumbled to a halt in 2006 with M:I-III. The third chapter was a fine action film but didn’t ignite the box office, whereas the fourth film really connected with audiences thanks in part to the Bond-style globetrotting, the high-stakes (if simplistic) plot and the incredible IMAX scenes, which were a joy to behold in true 15/70 IMAX. The follow-up had to be something special then, and Rogue Nation delivers.
What it lacks in glossy IMAX imagery it makes up for with a compelling story, as there hasn’t been a Mission with such a wonderfully knotty plot since Brian De Palma’s original. For once there isn’t a mole inside the IMF as the movie deals with the blowback from the dealings of the British Secret Service, Hunt getting caught in the middle of a power game between MI6 and Ilsa Faust, an undercover operative sent to root out the Syndicate. The movie sends us one way then the other as we wonder just who’s side Ilsa is on, her surname an obvious cypher for her dealings with the metaphorical devil as she struggles with her allegiances. The character brings an all-too-rare dimension to the spy genre because she’s not arm candy, she can handle a gun, knife or motorcycle with equal (if not better) skill than her male counterparts. Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson is admittedly very easy on the eye but that really is secondary to her tremendous screen presence as Ilsa, rarely betraying her ice-cool exterior and proving to be a perfect foil for the more boisterous characters.
Cruise is back doing what he does best as Ethan Hunt, the determined secret agent noted as being the “living manifestation of destiny” by CIA Director Hunley, who’s played by Alec Baldwin with gravelly-voiced zeal as he shutters the IMF and chases Ethan across the world (a nice little happenstance is that he was the first Jack Ryan, the original CIA posterboy, now he’s back as the boss!). Jeremy Renner reprises his role as Brandt and, much like some of his other recent returns to franchise roles, he brings a lighter touch this time, showcasing more of his natural comedy timing. As he lightens up others get a slightly heavier workload: Simon Pegg’s recurring role as Benji still brings with it Pegg’s trademark quirkiness, but he gets more to chew on from a dramatic perspective and is surprisingly effective in this dual capacity. Series stalwart Ving Rhames also returns as hacker extraordinaire Luther Stickell. Newcomer Sean Harris appears as the head of the Syndicate, his weaselly look and nasal delivery making him especially repellent, and Simon McBurney is similarly slimy as MI6 Chief Attlee. McBurney’s Rev co-star Tom Hollander features here as the British Prime Minister, and he grabs a couple of laughs.
But it’s not just the cast and the storyline that pleased me, as the action is also superb. The series’ ongoing commitment to practical effects and stunts pays dividends once again, with a visceral feel that really draws you in, the intensity ratcheting up with every set piece. The hand-to-hand fight scenes are staged with brutal efficiency, being quickly cut but aren’t Shakey-Cam™ for the sake of it, and the chase scenes on various cars and motorbikes achieve much the same effect, keeping the geography of the action clear in the viewer’s mind without sacrificing the pacing. The underwater scene may lack the dizzying spectacle of Cruise’s Burj Khalifa climb from the last movie, but it’s no less tense for it. The highlight has to be the stunning showdown of assassins at the Vienna opera which is set to a backing of Puccini’s Turandot, it’s a masterclass in cross-cutting that weaves several different strands together to form one of the most nail-biting scenes in this – or any other! – series.
The use of Nessun Dorma (Nobody Sleeps) from Turandot as a recurring motif in the film by composer Joe Kraemer is a stroke of genius, not only because World Cup Italia ’90 is forever seared into my brain but because it’s employed as Ilsa’s theme, underscoring her quest with a certain melancholy air. Kraemer doesn’t shy away from using Lalo Schifrin’s iconic main title theme, something which I felt was lacking from Michael Giacchino’s previous two Mission scores which were still very good, but he utilised the theme in a slightly cheesy ‘flavours of the world’ kind of way. Kraemer also leans heavily on The Plot, one of Schifrin’s signature cues from the TV series which is a delight to hear so frequently in a Mission: Impossible movie, having only been referenced in passing in the previous films (if at all).
Over the years it’s become clear that Cruise tends to make these films (because it really is ‘his’ franchise) by planning the stunts first and the plot second, developing the latter as they progress through the shoot. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, as although I liked Ghost Protocol it left a lot of questions hanging, whereas Rogue Nation somehow manages to make every twist and turn work for the story, as long as you’re paying attention! The cast is excellent so that helps too – I thought that Paula Patton’s dull performance was the weak link in Ghost Protocol – and the action is as jaw-dropping as ever. Some criticised it for not ending with some hugely expansive action blow-out but after the climax of the previous film (see first paragraph) I thought it was a nice change of pace. All told, I thoroughly enjoyed Rogue Nation and if it wasn’t for the peerless Mad Max Fury Road it would be my favourite action film of the year. And is it a better spy movie than Bond? You’d better believe it.
Rogue Nation comes to 1080p high definition disc with a theatrically correct 2.40 widescreen aspect. The movie was shot predominantly on 35mm anamorphic (that’s film, ladies and gents) with digital used for inserts and certain scenes like the underwater Torus sequence, which was captured on the large format ARRI Alexa 65. Finished on a 2K DI, it’s not the prettiest film you’re likely to see, with a definite orangey tinge to skin tones and a subdued colour palette in general, and although I love anamorphic there’s no denying that the glass can produce patches of softness and distortion on the screen which can affect acuity.
That’s not the express intention behind using such lenses, it’s to get that signature Panavision ‘look’ with the unique elliptical bokeh and shallow depth of field, but it does mean that detail sometimes wavers, looking pin-sharp in some shots but decidedly middling in others. Grain is variable, sometimes it looks perfectly natural and sometimes it’s a little too processed, but the prevailing impression is of a healthy film-like quality. Contrast is controlled adequately, with lots of detail visible in the shadows and serviceable (though not super deep) black levels. I didn’t spot any significant encoding gremlins and there’s a pleasant lack of banding, an artefact which has been driving me up the wall lately.
While the picture quality may be good but not truly great, the audio isn’t just great, it’s incredible. The movie is presented in Dolby’s height-based Atmos system, thankfully it decodes into plain old lossless TrueHD 7.1 for us mere mortals and it is epic. Gut rumbling bass drops through the floor, the music is crisp, the speech is articulate and the surrounds, oh my. All the usual action elements are present and correct (you’ll hear glass fly, motorbikes zooming by and bullets thudding into the wall behind you) but it’s the subtler moments that really impressed me, like when we’re on the red carpet at the opera and it sounds like you’re at the centre of a horde of paparazzi all snapping away on their cameras. And during the dungeon scene you can hear the far-off rumble of a train as it goes past. Basically it’s one of the best sound mixes I’ve heard all year, fabulous stuff.
Extras include a decent audio commentary with Cruise & McQuarrie, the two having an easy-going relationship as they gabble over the top of each other and reveal lots of interesting info, including the fact that they really were making it up as they went along! The video featurettes (with approximate running times) included on the standard 1-disc release are: Lighting The Fuse (6m), Cruise Control (6m), Cruising Altitude (8m), Mission Immersible (6m), Sand Theft Auto (5m), The Missions Continue (7m), and Heroes… (8m). They look at various aspects of the film (the plane scene, the underwater scene, the Morocco car/motorbike chase etc) and include comments from a wide range of crew members.
For this review I’ve gotten hold of the Sainsburys exclusive 2-disc version, which comes with its own cover design & slipcase different from the standard version and a bonus Blu-ray disc with more extras (all presented in HD). We get a glimpse at other facets of the production such as the music, the editing, the globe-trotting and so on: …And Rogues (5m), Top Crews (6m), Travel Agents (5m), Opera-ation Turandot (4m), Practically Impossible (6m), Cut! (7m), Variations On A Theme (4m), and lastly Stunts (30m, comprised of five different featurettes, some of which are duplicated from the main movie disc: Cruising Altitude, Mission Immersible, Sand Theft Auto, A Fight At The Opera, Run-Don).
Taken as a whole the features are a bit fluffy, but one-and-a-half hours of extras shouldn’t be overlooked in the current home video climate and they still provide a nice overview of proceedings, especially when combined with the more candid insights of Cruise & McQuarrie in the audio commentary.
You can bet Mr Bond didn’t see the spectre of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation creeping up behind him, it’s one of Ethan Hunt’s best outings yet as well as being one of the best blockbusters of the year, and the Blu-ray brings it home with respectable video quality and out-of-this-world 7.1 audio. The extras on the regular edition (available to buy in our links below) are plenty informative, while the bonus disc version adds another 45-minutes of similarly themed bits and pieces. It comes highly recommended no matter which flavour you buy.
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