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The Sharper Image Catalog as Film 

In the latest Mission: Impossible, the stars are the gadgets and stunts.

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While I have generally enjoyed the Mission: Impossible series, if you were to ask me what any of the films were about four days after I saw them, well...that information is kept in an airtight "dark tunnel" under six levels of encryption and accessible only after presenting a thumbprint, a retinal scan and the name of my high school mascot. But that's okay! Profundity is not the point of a Mission: Impossible film; logic, consistency and plausibility are equally discounted. These films deal in chaos and deliver it well.

The latest, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is no exception, and although it may be almost too much of a good thing, it promises — and provides — two hours of continuous action.

As in previous M:I outings, the film involves super-agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) looking for an international ring of terrorists known as the Syndicate, with help from his sidekicks on the Impossible Mission Force, Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames). They're joined by British double agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who may not be trustworthy — not that such things matter. There's also a sub-plot in which CIA man Alan Hunley (Alex Baldwin) has the IMF disbanded and gives orders for Hunt's arrest, while keeping Hunt's former boss (Jeremy Renner) under his control. The action jumps from London to Vienna to Morocco, staying in each place just long enough to unload a new carton of gadgets and head into an extended series of stunts and action sequences before jumping off to the next location.

For all of their globe-trotting heroes, terrorist cells and world-threatening weapons, the Mission: Impossible films are, at heart, technophilic fantasies about men (and women) who live like real-life Jetsons and have better phone service than you can even dream about. Technology has been central to the series from the beginning, but much has changed since 1996, when Tom Cruise had to type in MS-DOS commands to break into CIA headquarters and arch-villain Vanessa Redgrave worried about transmitting a file before her Wi-Fi connection failed. In the first film, technology was a sometimes unreliable tool; with Rogue Nation, it is the whole point.

The suspense of waiting for a particular bit of high-tech trickery to go off or the clockwork timing of some of the IMF capers are what passes for dramatic development here. Without them, Ethan Hunt is a cipher. Unlike James Bond, there's no hint of a personal life or even much of a personality. His existence depends on having some kind of task to keep him occupied. You can't imagine him ordering a drink, let alone worrying if it was shaken or stirred. Which is fine, because he's just a vehicle for Tom Cruise and the elaborate stunt work which pulls the film closer to the semi-comic terrain of Jackie Chan circa 1990 than to the macho ruthlessness of Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Just as CGI effects would dilute the pleasure one gets from the motorcycle chases and endurance tests, so would having to believe that Ethan had any emotions or thoughts which might distract him from the action at hand.

The filmmakers dutifully try to build up some kind of reason for all of the running around, but in this case, the ineffectual super-villain behind the complicated plot barely makes an impression. This isn't a movie about good and evil; it's about solving puzzles. Alliances shift as easily as trusts and characters are judged not by their ideology but by their usefulness. The filmmakers only lose sight of this once, near the end, when Hunt starts to make a statement about the necessity of the IMF bringing down the bad guys. (I'll blame writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who also directed Cruise in the heavy-handed Jack Reacher) It's not just out of character; it's disappointing. The last thing anyone wants from a Mission: Impossible film is for Cruise to start giving speeches.

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February 24, 2021

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