Any fears that Tom Cruise was at risk of losing his megastar status have been roundly quashed by the thunderous critical and commercial success of his fifth Mission: Impossible movie, Rogue Nation. Honing the formula that made 2011's Ghost Protocol such a monster hit, the latest outing for Ethan Hunt and his loyal IMF team (Impossible Mission Force) strings together a series of increasingly outrageous, jaw-dropping stunts with breezy character interplay and a flimsy plot that's little more than an excuse to catapult audiences around the world. In that sense, it perfectly honours the tongue in cheek tone of the original 1960s TV series. The story this time sees Hunt come up against an 'anti-IMF' known as The Syndicate: a faction of deadly assassins who have been staging various conflicts and natural disasters in order to destabilise the current world order. In order to track down and stop The Syndicate's mysterious leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), Hunt must go off the grid and secretly reunite his crew consisting of techie Benji (Simon Pegg), analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and old friend Luther (Ving Rhames). However, things are complicated by the involvement of CIA chief Hunley (Alec Baldwin) who has had the IMF disavowed, and also the mysterious Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), whose path repeatedly crosses with that of Ethan's as her allegiances appear to wobble between the goodies and baddies.
Fulfilling his remit to take the stunt work to the next level, Cruise this time clings to airborne planes, rides motorbikes at breakneck speeds and plunges underwater for several minutes without oxygen tanks during an especially nail-biting sequence. Calling the shots is director Christopher McQuarrie, Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Usual Suspects and whose previous film Jack Reacher also starred Cruise. Another important member of that film's production, composer Joe Kraemer, is on board for Rogue Nation and his thrillingly propulsive score is a highlight of the 2015 blockbuster season. Kraemer actually made his film score debut with McQuarrie's 2000 film The Way of the Gun and, in comparison to previous Mission: Impossible composers Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer and Michael Giacchino, has relatively few film score credits to his name, his output largely consisting of straight-to-DVD movies. However, Rogue Nation is anything but a rookie effort. In fact, it may very well be the best score in the series so far. This is a franchise that has veered all over the map musically, with Elfman's 1996 original proving more textural than memorable, Zimmer's score for the second losing its way amidst electric guitar-fuelled bombast and Giacchino bringing it back around to the retro tone of Lalo Schifrin's classic TV theme for the third and fourth movies.
If Kraemer's score comes closest to any of those, it's Giacchino's work. But he puts the previous composers to shame in the way in which he intelligently and consistently incorporates Schifrin's iconic ideas throughout the score, instead of simply using them as a signifier of an especially over the top set-piece. The tone is set right from the off in the gripping opening cue "The A400", the track that accompanies Cruise's astonishing aerial derring do with the plane at the start of the movie. Choppy, dynamic strings, pulsating brass, a varied timpani section and a keen rhythmic sense are all established, continually underpinned by the presence of the Mission: Impossible theme that eventually explodes into the thrilling main title arrangement. These stylistics work their way through the score's plentiful action music, with adrenaline-pumping highlights including "Escape to Danger", "A Flight at the Opera", "The Torus", "Morocco Pursuit" (a strong candidate for the year's greatest action cue), and "A Foggy Night in London".
Alongside the central Mission: Impossible theme, there are a host of other ideas at work in the score too. "Solomon Lane" introduces an enjoyably dark and grandiose piece for Harris' baddie; brooding and malevolent, it snakes its way throughout the score in fragments as a reminder of the ever-present danger that The Syndicate poses to Ethan and his team. After a great amount of percolating tension, the theme's murky, Christopher Young-esque emergence in "Good Evening, Mr. Hunt" is especially chilling, although its fullest statements come later on in shadowy pieces "The Syndicate", "Grave Consequences", "The Blenheim Sequence" and "An Audience with Prime Minister" as Lane's evil plan begins to take shape.
The other key secondary idea is the theme for Ferguson's alluring Ilsa, in fact an adaptation of Puccini's "Nessun dorma" from his timeless opera "Turandot". First heard in the lavish "A Flight at the Opera", where Hunt comes across Ilsa in apparent stages of an assassination attempt, the piece then becomes cemented with her in later cues "A Matter of Going" and "Finale", tracks that are far more beautiful and moving than this genre usually allows for. The aria's sense of melancholy romanticism turns out to be something of an inspired fit for Ferguson's character as she finds herself manipulated on all sides and unsure of who to trust. It also gets a dynamic action interpretation during "Morocco Pursuit" when Hunt finds himself chasing after Ilsa, evidence of Kraemer's intelligence in manipulating the score's various musical ideas.
Kraemer also honours Schifrin in a textural and tonal sense, incorporating all manner of tapping bongos, xylophones and bass woodwinds into the vibrant action material to give a deliciously retro sound. The multi-faceted percussion section is a delight, especially in a track like "The Plan" which starts with a rumbling piano and gradually adds various musical elements including chopping strings, woodblocks and snares to brilliant effect. Schifrin's secondary series theme, called "The Plot" and used so effectively in Giacchino's scores, is also thrown into the mix, getting thrilling workouts in tracks such as "The A400", "The Plan", "The Torus" (where it develops a musical dialogue in conjunction with the brass section). Location-specific touches are generally kept to a minimum, bar the brief Cuban stylistics of "Havana to Vienna" and the exotic Middle-Eastern flourishes in "The Syndicate".
The score bows out in fine style with the double bill of "Meet the IMF" and "Finale and Curtain Call", both of which conclude the score's various musical ideas. The former's powerfully defiant merging of Ilsa's "Nessun dorma" piece with a robust statement of the Mission: Impossible theme then leads into the latter's beautifully poignant and understated opening. Needless to say it doesn't last long: the climactic end credits statement of the central theme is glorious stuff, and the score isn't done yet, moving through a carefully constructed suite of the precision-tooled action material before bringing everything full circle with one final explosive blow-out of Schifrin's iconic TV piece. It's stirring stuff and wonderfully old-fashioned in nature.
That's why Kraemer's score is such a joy: the composer has stated that "retro" was the buzzword in crafting the music for Rogue Nation and he deliberately set out to avoid any electronic embellishments. The score is beautifully orchestrated with the various components of the orchestra playing off each other superbly, creating a dynamic and engaging soundscape that honours the great Lalo Schifrin. With its clutch of strong musical ideas, blistering action music and throwback tone, Rogue Nation is one of the 2015 summer season's best scores and deserves to catapult Kraemer to the top of the film music A-list. Mission accomplished!