Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
(SPOILERS) There’s a groundswell of opinion that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the best in near 20-year movie franchise. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but only because this latest instalment and its two predecessors have maintained such a consistently high standard it’s difficult to pick between them. III featured a superior villain and an emotional through line with real stakes. Ghost Protocol dazzled with its giddily constructed set pieces and pacing. Christopher McQuarrie’s fifth entry has the virtue of a very solid script, one that expertly navigates the kind of twists and intrigue one expects from a spy franchise. It also shows off his talent as a director; McQuarrie’s not one for stylistic flourish, but he makes up for this with diligence and precision. Best of all, he may have delivered the series’ best character in Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust (admittedly, in a quintet that makes a virtue of pared down motivation and absence of backstory, that may not seem to be saying much, but it is).
In terms of plot mechanics this might be the most lucid in the series thus far; the objective is clear, the MacGuffin is actually crucial (so more than just a MacGuffin) and the deceits and double-crosses peppering the narrative recall the first Brian De Palma picture, only more finely honed and deliberate.
It’s an abiding problem for liberal filmmakers making spy pictures that the subject matter tends towards underlying support and validation of control systems prone to abuse; from Bond to Hunt, if we didn’t have the hero spy acting beyond the law and infringing our civil liberties, what a pickle we would all be in. A solution to this was summoned in the first M:I movie; make the organisation corrupt and have the real good guys restore what is right and true. The bad seeds can even stand as a metaphor for where the government as a whole has gone wrong. This idea became even more intrinsic to the genre following the advent of Jason Bourne. Now it was the only way to go. Even Bond, who previously only went rogue to sort out a personal vendetta, was now expected to fly solo. The establishment is inherently not to be trusted, and what better way to illustrate this than having the hero operate on his own recognisances, to show the system how it should be done? It’s an approach that benefits a genre built on conspiracies and not knowing who to trust; the danger is that if everyone is doing it, it gets old quickly.
So in Rogue Nation Ethan is out on a limb yet again, hunted by his masters and attempting to bring down the real villains (who, of course, no one believes exist). The presence of the Syndicate (it’s sort of M:I’s very own SPECTRE… oh, wait, they’ve destroyed it) serves to emphasise the jaundiced view of the intelligence services. A group of rogue agents established by figures in the British government. Rogue Nation posits a global foe explicitly manufactured by those with a duty to defend their country (make of that what you will in terms of its bearing on current conspiracy lore, although Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci had nothing to do with the plot for this one).
Rogue Nation even goes as far as having Ethan, Fast & Furious style, announce that he works with his friends; that’s what his IMF is, a posse of pals. Even CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) comes round to their way of thinking by the end of the picture; he’s allowed to join their gang, and get in on lying to those who would stop them from doing the right thing, for the greater good, with no accountability…. Er… It’s ironic that the series has arrived at the “friends together” thing, five pictures in, as the Cruise star-led approach had almost studiously avoided the team aspect and approach of the TV original.
Sure, Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell is a stalwart of the franchise (amusingly referenced as being completely out of shape as a key point during a set piece), and Simon Pegg’s Benji has now featured in three movies on the trot, but they’ve been on the periphery mostly, facilitators for Tom’s Hunt to do his thing. And since Ethan himself is something of a cypher – in a good way, since the state of movies has reach the point where even Bond is encumbered with superfluous and irritating back story and emotional journey – and Jeremy Renner’s Brandt being slightly untrustworthy is summoned again to add a bit of tension to a plot twist, it makes it all the more peculiar and slightly absurd to proclaim their great chumminess in this way. Sure, III attempted to give Ethan (and to be fair, did it quite well) a home and love life, although Cruise seems to have acknowledged the trickle down that Hunt is best left vague and unfettered (Michelle Monaghan was granted a cameo in Ghost Protocol, she doesn’t even merit a mention here).
The ironies pile up. I doubt anyone would have expected a franchise revolving around Cruise’s star appeal as fundamentally as this (which is why profits are prone to waning when his personal beliefs are in the spotlight; see III in particular) to suddenly serve up by far its strongest character out of leftfield, one who steals the limelight. Yet one of the reasons the twists and betrayals in Rogue Nation work so well is that they revolve for the most part around the picture’s greatest asset, Ferguson’s MI6 undercover agent (or is she?) Ilsa.
Cruise is left playing catch-up, perhaps not quite to the extent of the other female lead in boys’ movie clothing of the summer Mad Max: Fury Road, but nevertheless many of the best moments go to Isla. Ferguson is outstanding. I wasn’t aware of her work beforehand, and I don’t know if she, like Cruise, learnt to hold her breath for a full six minutes at a time, but she’s clearly down there in those underwater scenes, riding daredevil motorbikes, and pulling impressive martial arts moves. Isla isn’t just a kick-ass; she’s cunning, vital, highly motivated and very sexy (it’s a bit disingenuous of Pegg to complain about the poster at the top of the page when the movie takes pains to accentuate Ferguson’s figure at every opportunity). Her character arcs from mysterious, to manipulative, to desperate and in danger, to teaming with the IMF, and Ferguson navigates each stage with consummate skill.
It’s particularly notable that Isla gets to save the hero, and is granted the climactic fight scene (with Jens Hultén’s henchman); you don’t miss that Cruise doesn’t get to do the honours. The extent this was planned is uncertain (the ending might have had more of an Ethan flourish in original conception) but there is evidently an intentional commentary on the lead character. This is, after all, the Tom Cruise/Ethan Hunt who free solo climbs cliffs, leaps about the outside of the world’s tallest building, straps himself to the outside an Airbus taking off and generally acts as if he is immortal.
McQuarrie’s sets up this commentary on mythos from the first; no one can stop the plane filled with deadly nerve gas until Ethan rocks up. When he visits a retro-vinyl store to get his orders, the counter girl (Hermione Corfield) is in awe of Hunt. She’s heard all about him. Are the stories true? Likewise, Benji is completely blasé about Ethan being able to tackle any given physical challenge (some of Cruise’s best deadpan playing comes from his scenes with Pegg). Later however, it’s Ethan who needs saving and resuscitating when he loses consciousness in the cooling tank, and it’s Ethan who gets shot and a Bourne-like (or -lite) gammy leg.
McQuarrie is nursing and simultaneously undercutting expectations. This isn’t far from the way Q or M traditionally comment on Bond’s trademark foibles, but it extends more self-reflexively still. Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane refers to Hunt as a chancer; he exists on the knife-edge between being a hero and a villain. There’s borderline incredulity at IMF’s track record in the Senate oversight committee, since somehow their flouting of the rules and recklessness has yielded a 100% success rate, always against the odds. The whole thing is spectacularly unlikely, and McQuarrie knows it.
McQuarrie had wanted to bring back other former players Maggie Q and Paula Patton, who weren’t available (obviously, Emilio Estevez’ character wouldn’t have been considered), so it’s left to Ferguson to singlehandedly prevent this from turning into a boy’s club. Rhames is always good fun, and his antagonistic banter with Renner enlivens the proceedings, particularly during the already lively Moroccan road chase. Renner is much better served here than in the last movie, even though he isn’t involved in most of the action. He milks the humour from his suited appearance before the senate, and he and Baldwin clearly enjoy sparking off each other. Indeed, what’s clear from this is that he and Cruise don’t have the best chemistry; he needs to be matched well in these ensembles (Avengers has similar problems). Calling on the idea that Brandt might betray Hunt is a bit desperate, and no one is really buying it by this point, but it only comes into play for a brief spell.
Pegg is much better suited to this supporting part than his one in that other J J Abrams franchise. His role has increased with each successive M:I, but he and Cruise aren’t quite the perfect double act. Pegg makes Cruise look fun, but Cruise can’t make Pegg and his special new luxury hairpiece seem like a weighty dramatic actor. His one bum note is Benji’s speech on why he should be there at Ethan’s side, and it reminds you there’s good reason Pegg’s niche is comedy (likewise, the intimidation scene with Harris – they could play brothers – I assume Pegg was playing terrified, but he looked as if he was going to crack wise at any moment).
Harris is an indelible screen presence, but blockbusters, including this one, have failed to make the most of him. He may not love fucking rocks in Rogue Nation, but Lane is only unnerving because it's Harris playing him, not because there’s any meat to his character (one wonders if Lane’s throat was damaged during a mission, given Harris’ strangled delivery, a nice unelaborated touch). Hunt gives a speech about Lane blaming others rather than himself, but the villain’s motivation remains vague; he objects to working for bad guys so he becomes a worse guy? It might have been interesting if Lane attempted to espouse an ethos that made him seem morally justified in comparison to the crooks he used to work for. Instead, he’s just another criminal mastermind.
Likewise, while I appreciate the eschewing of a more’s-the-pity slam-bam explosive finale for something a bit more measured, satisfying and in keeping with the TV show (on that score, I loved the title sequence this time round), one might be forgiven for expecting something slightly more intricate given the emphasis place on Lane’s abilities to control everything. Hunt needed to come up with a doozy; what we have is fine, and surely preferable to what they originally had, but you know McQuarrie has the chops to come up with something really special.
The action scenes are hugely satisfying. McQuarrie, as with Jack Reacher but on a significantly grander scale, knows exactly how to stage and arrange an action sequence for maximum comprehensibility on the part of the viewer. Action is clear and understood. Best of all, he fully understands how to sustain tension through editing. Perhaps the opening with the jet is the weakest, but only because it’s an amazing stunt that is more impressive knowing it was for real than actually watching (unlike Ghost Protocol’s tallest building).
But the sequence at the opera, juggling multiple elements in a more workmanlike way than De Palma or Hitch would (it’s definitely that kind of scene) is quite dazzling in its deftness of touch, Likewise, the underwater server farm scene is visceral and classically against the clock. Later, the Moroccan car chase is the fun one, with Cruise and Pegg paired for banter and Ving and Renner likewise; there’s a cute visual gag as Benji, upside down in a crashed car, sees the legs of a hit man approaching, only for said hit man’s legs to be sent flying when Luther’s van slams into him. Following this, the motorbike chase lays to rest the ludicrous memory of the series’ last flirtation with such vehicles.
There are many other elements deserving praise. Simon McBurney’s is casually callous as MI6 guy Attlee (preposterous balding going on up there too), while Tom Hollander steals every moment he’s on screen as the very funny drugged-up PM. There’s good but sparing use of the traditional IMF face masks/identity swaps (including an almost Edgar Wright-esque what-if run through scene). Robert Elswit’s cinematography, returning form Ghost Protocol, is bold and vibrant. Joe Kramer’s score isn’t up there with Michael Giacchino’s, and I’m still unsure about his use of Nessun Dorma as a motif, but he gets the job done.
It remains to be seen how well this does at the box office. If it falls short of Ghost Protocol, that wont be for want of quality (but that wasn’t the case with M:I III either) and probably more to down to the vagaries of release date and the ever-fluctuating Cruise factor. Hopefully any shortfall won’t impede M:I VI, which Cruise wants to get going next summer. I read McQuarrie might be back, but they should stick to the strategy of a new helmer each time. McQ on script duties would be more than welcome, however. And bringing back Rebecca Ferguson is an absolute must.