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Gone 'Rogue' 

Cruise returns to form in latest 'Mission Impossible.'

RISKY BUSINESS: Cruise takes chances in latest.
  • RISKY BUSINESS: Cruise takes chances in latest.

Here's a thought I had on the way home from seeing "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation," maybe an obvious one. The thought is: Most good action movies are about tangible risk. Or the sensation of tangible risk. They succeed to the degree that they can demonstrate real consequences — this matters, these scenarios matter in a physical, nontrivial way. When the airplane takes off with Tom Cruise clinging to the outside door, this is a scenario that must be resolved. If not, he will be hurt. It only works if we believe that. The plane gains altitude and speed, and we can see Cruise's cheeks rippling from the wind. His jaw is rigid. He seems to be having trouble breathing. For the minute or 30 seconds this lasts, we either feel a tightening in our chests and pulses, in our throats, or we don't. And moment by moment, without exception, those are the only terms of success or failure that hold any weight. The terms are: Did it make you nervous?

I brought a notebook with me and tried taking notes during the film. The first thing I wrote down was "Shadow Wilson." Shadow Wilson was a jazz drummer. He played with Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and Sonny Stitt, and he died of a heroin overdose in 1959. Why did I write this down? I won't ruin it for you. Some other words I wrote down include "Havana" (when Cruise goes rogue, he leads the CIA, which is trailing him around the globe, to believe that he's holed up in Havana) and "turtleneck" (the villain played by Sean Harris, who also played Joy Division's Ian Curtis in "24 Hour Party People," is nasal and nebbishy and wears turtlenecks that give the impression of a sexually deviant Steve Jobs). It was hard to take notes in the dark and also focus on the action, which was fast-paced and breathless, so after a while I gave up.

I think that a film like this must be reverse-engineered. As in, you must begin with images, flashes of danger: Cruise holding his breath in an underwater carousel, a man at a candlelit dinner table with a bomb under his jacket. You start with these still lifes, dreamlike and implausible, and then you arrange them in sequence and you fill in the gaps. In the case of "Mission Impossible," you fill them with vague, wispy suggestions of geopolitical anxiety. This is all plot and connective tissue, which are not at all unimportant — they're what distinguish the immersive Space Mountain from some bland, outdoor Six Flags knockoff — but the physical mechanics of the roller coaster remain first priority. Gravity is what makes you nervous, not backstory.

"Rogue Nation" has several impressive scenes. Maybe my favorite takes place at the Vienna Opera House, during a performance of Puccini's "Turandot." There's something kind of cocky and middlebrow about setting an action sequence during an opera (see also the recent James Bond film "Quantum of Solace," which staged a bravura set piece during a visually exciting performance of Puccini's "Tosca"). But it works fine here, because the scene is all about process and math — angles and geometry and probability. Cruise has to make a decision by the end of the scene that reminded me, in its devious simplicity, of an SAT word problem: Two assassins have guns trained on the same man. You have one bullet and just a few seconds to make a decision. Who do you shoot?

The movie is either chauvinistic or the opposite of chauvinistic, but I couldn't decide, and I finally lost interest in the question. There's the IMF, which is Cruise's organization, a deeply classified and controversial American group with unconventional methods of information-gathering and peacekeeping. And then the film postulates the existence of an "anti-IMF," alike in every way, but working toward different goals; in this case that's the terrorist villains, led by Cruise's turtlenecked doppelganger. But their otherness is downplayed. "We only think we're fighting for the right side because that's what we choose to believe," says Ilsa Faust, played by the Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, articulating a form of moral relativism that is usually unnerving in the context of a Hollywood blockbuster (like a monster catching sight of its reflection in a mirror). But her remark just sits there — they let it stand, never countered. I guess we are supposed to agree.

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