Early in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation Ethan Hunt goes to a record store and
plays a vinyl album on which is encoded the details of his next mission (should
he accept it). This bit isn’t just a clever wink to the modern resurgence of
vinyl, it’s a statement of purpose - as much as it can be, Rogue Nation wants to
be an analog film.
Sure, there’s plenty of CGI, but the movie’s thrills are predicated on the
reality of its action scenes: Tom Cruise hanging off a real plane as it really
takes off, Tom Cruise really riding a motorcycle at insane speeds on a winding
highway, Tom Cruise really jumping and punching and hitting and running. It’s
been said that Tom Cruise is the biggest special effect in this franchise, and
here, more than ever, it is true. He is the Siencetologist version of Jackie
Chan, throwing himself into harms way at every turn.
That analog nature of the stunts is old-fashioned, but not as old-fashioned as
director Christopher McQuarrie’s sense of craft. Every set piece in this film is
crafted with care and precision, edited with elegance and excitement, shot with
clarity and beauty and played for maximum thrills and fun. Every action scene in
Rogue Nation is great, and no action scene overstays its welcome or feels
shoe-horned in. Every action scene in this movie tells a story, has a beginning,
middle and end, and every single one reveals things about characters and their
relationships with one another.
I don’t know what the best action scene is in the film. Is it the opening with
Cruise hanging from the plane, redefining spectacle in a post-CGI age? Is it the
elaborate and gripping opera house hunt and silent battle? Maybe it’s the chase
through the streets of Morocco that feels totally modern and fresh while still
doing some old fashioned things like having cars careen through market stalls.
Perhaps it’s the incredibly tense diving sequence that has reversal after
reversal and yet still contains tons of character work. All of them are great,
and all of them add up to what would have been the best action movie of the year
if the phenomenon that is Mad Max: Fury Road hadn’t already come out.
It also doesn't hurt having the instantly recognizable TV series theme by Lalo
Schifrin used throughout. It induces an almost Pavlovian response. A call to
action in 5/4 time.
Speaking of the television series on which these films are based, I will say
that of all the TV series to movie adaptations being done, these last two MI
films have been the most faithful. Certainly the action quotient has been raised
to keep the attentions of a modern audience. But all of the trappings inherent
in the 1960's original are all there.
This time Ethan Hunt has met his match - two of them to be exact. One is Sean
Harris as Lane, the mysterious and almost omnipotent head of an evil spy group
known as The Syndicate. The other is Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, Lane’s
associate whose loyalties are forever in flux, but whose capabilities remain
forever at their peak. Lane is constantly one step ahead of everyone, and his
uncanny understanding of human nature allows him to second guess every choice
Ethan Hunt makes. The only person he can’t quite fathom is Ilsa, and neither can
Ethan. She goes from aiding him to betraying him, from saving him to almost
killing him. She’s simply very cool.
Tom Cruise is the star of this franchise - it’s basically Tom Cruise’s Stunt
Spectacular at this point - but Rebecca Ferguson is the star of this movie. She
is gorgeous and lethal, tempering Ilsa’s super spy abilities with a very human
underpinning. She’s more of a human than Ethan Hunt has ever been, even when
there was a whole movie about his wife. I would say that Ethan and Ilsa are
truly equals, but the truth is that she is so much more intriguing than he is.
She could be the next Imperator Furiosa or Ripley, in terms of female action
characters who grab the zeitgeist by the throat and don’t let go. If she doesn’t
quite become that it’s only because Ferguson is such a terrific actress that
Ilsa ends up with too many dimensions to be reduced to simply an outfit that can
be cosplayed. Here's hoping that that Ferguson becomes a regular player in
subsequent MI films.
This is the first entry in the series that feels like it’s an entry in a series;
there’s even a bit that explicitly calls back to the ending of the last film.
While the premise of these movies have always been that they are mostly
standalone, I like the feeling here that it’s all settled into a rhythm. The
relationship between Ethan and his team has gone from professional to personal,
and there’s a lot of talk about helping friends and being there for friends.
It’s an entry in a series where everything gels together. It makes me wonder if
someone will die in the next installment; even though Ving Rhames’ Luther has
been in every single one of these movies it wasn’t until this installment that I
realized I would hate to see him bite the dust - which means that after
Protocol I’ve finally become emotionally attached to some of these guys!
The team ably assists Ethan, with Simon Pegg’s Benji getting the most screen
The relationship between Benji and Ethan is, frankly, weird, and I like that
about it. These two shouldn’t be pals, but the chemistry between Cruise and Pegg
is real. At the same time Pegg seems to clearly be always aware that he’s
sharing a scene with Tom Cruise, and that works for nerd turned field agent
Benji as well - this guy is friends with Ethan Hunt, but Ethan is also his hero.
Meanwhile Jeremy Renner remains an odd fit. I think he’s an odd fit in almost
everything, and like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Rogue Nation turns that to its
advantage. The film keeps Renner’s Brandt out of the action for a long time, and
when he does finally join Hunt in the field there’s a real sense of distrust; is
Brandt truly part of the Impossible Mission Force family or is he planning on
betraying Ethan? In Avengers it was the reveal of Hawkeye’s family that helped
integrate him into the larger fabric by making him more whole, here it’s the way
that Brandt… well, that would be spoiling.
This isn’t a spoiler: McQuarrie’s movie (written by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce)
is so smart that it actually textualizes the fact that Tom Cruise will not die
in one of these films. We all know the hero won’t die, but that everyone else is
fair game, and in this film the bad guys realize the same thing. Textually it’s
because Ethan has info they need, but meta-textually it works just as well, with
Ethan literally putting himself between his friends and bullets because he knows
no one will shoot him.
That meta-textual smartness extends to conflict at the center of the movie. Lane
is using his training as a superspy to create havoc in the world in order to
effect change. He accuses Ethan of using violence to maintain the status quo and
to protect the system. In many ways this is indie actor Sean Harris talking to
Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise, and Ethan’s reply is perfect - whether it be
about the state of global power or the state of the movie industry - you can’t
blame The System as though it is a thing that exists outside of us. We are all
part of The System, and the choices we make impact it all. This is McQuarrie
planting a flag, saying that you can walk into Hollywood and make a huge,
expensive, star-driven franchise sequel based on a TV show and still make it
really, really good. The System isn’t the problem, it’s how the people in The
System approach it. And McQuarrie approaches it, like Ethan Hunt, as something
that can be used for good as long as you believe and work hard and are willing
to put it all on the line.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation proves that theory by being absolutely
excellent; it is the best film in this series, and it is a perfectly realized
piece of cinematic craftsmanship, one that would make any of the truly skilled
great filmmakers proud. There’s no reason your TV adaptation has to suck.
There’s no reason the fifth film in your franchise has to be a cynical cash
grab. There’s no reason your big blockbuster movie has to be filled with
incoherent pixels attacking other incoherent pixels. There’s no reason your big
Hollywood movie star can’t get out there and work his ass off to entertain and
thrill you. There’s no reason to make a bad movie. Christopher McQuarrie walked
into The System and proved that one man can make a difference.