In my recaps of the Mission: Impossible movies last week, I postulated that even in this most unpredictable of series, where tone, narrative and character are defined not by formula but the vision of whomever happens to be behind the camera, the movies tend to alternate between the character-driven suspense of the first and third entries, and the live action cartoons of the second and fourth. From the trailers, you’d suspect Rogue Nation was set to break the cycle and consolidate the successes of Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol. In fact, Rogue Nation is every bit as much the product of its director as previous movies and its successes and failures are far more akin to those of the odd-numbered entries than the even ones.
McQuarrie’s voice is not as immediately clear as that of De Palma, or Woo, or Abrams, or Bird, but there are clear traces of his previous work in Rogue Nation‘s DNA. There’s the twisting allegiances of Usual Suspects, which he wrote; the slow-burning suspense and disenchantment with politics and governments from Valkyrie; a hint of The Tourist‘s globe-trotting caper; more than a splash of Jack Reacher‘s love of crunching physical violence, both personal and mechanical. That these traits are more disparate than those belonging to previous series directors leads to the movie struggling for a coherent tone, even if several of its individual notes are terrific. Somehow, that inconsistency allows it to be both its own thing and also the closest thing yet produced to a ‘typical’ Mission: Impossible movie.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Release Date: July 31st 2015
The much-trailed airplane stunt kicks off the movie and summarises much of why there continues to be a fondness for the series, sometimes in spite of itself. The entire sequence has next to nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but combines a real sense of danger and adrenaline with a winking sense of humour acknowledging the silliness of what is happening without undermining it. That dedication to over-the-top physical stuntwork generates and deserves huge amounts of goodwill, especially with Tom Cruise’s fervent dedication to performing every fresh act of lunacy himself. It’s a lost art these days, rarely seen since Roger Moore’s tenure of the James Bond series, even if Moore let his stuntman do much of the hard graft. As an aside, it’s interesting how much Rogue Nation, intentionally or not, draws on precedents from the Bond movies. The plane stunt is a larger scale version of similar efforts from Octopussy and Living Daylights, for instance, while aficionados of both series will spot a number of recurring motifs, not least in the villainous Syndicate being a brazen analogue for SPECTRE. With that organisation soon to make a return, you have to wonder if Cruise and McQuarrie hoped to nip in and bag a bit of the glory first.
After that typically spectacular intro, the movie settles down into something more unexpectedly low-key. Aside from an overextended car and bike chase somewhere around the midpoint, most of the major set-pieces revolve around tension and one-on-one fights rather than escalating the spectacle. The decision is an admirable one, but doesn’t quite pay off as fully as it could as a result of shortcomings elsewhere. The first half is significantly more compelling for the fact that the Syndicate and its operatives and motives remain mysterious and unknown to both audience and protagonist. Ethan Hunt, going rogue for the fourth time in five movies in a gimmick that has gone beyond eye-rolling into resigned acceptance, feels out of his depth and struggling to keep up with enemies he’s unable to even clearly identify, imbuing him with a sense of the underdog despite his superhuman physical capabilities. The apex of this, in both the high point of the movie and one of the series’ strongest scenes, is his attempt to stop a Syndicate hit on the Austrian chancellor during a performance of Turandot at the Viennese opera. It’s a perfectly paced sequence where a number of players of uncertain allegiances and motives play off each other in perfect musical and thematic timing to the opera taking place in the background.
In the middle of it all is Rebecca Ferguson’s immaculately named Ilsa Faust, the double-triple-maybe-quadruple agent who is the movie’s best developed and most engaging character by far. As the series continues to struggle to find any sort of identity for Hunt beyond ‘Tom Cruise jumping off stuff’, Ilsa is ferociously powerful, fiercely intelligent and vulnerable in a way which allows her to be grateful for help without making it seem as though she couldn’t, in a pinch, save her own hide on the back of her talents. She drives the narrative far more than Hunt, who, like Max Rockatansky, mostly follows her lead and serves as a useful tool for disentangling her from the zero-sum situation into which she has been placed. Ferguson’s performance enhances an already complex role, distinguishing between the character’s professional deviousness and her personal humour and pragmatism. Aside from a strange two or three minutes where the camera twice lingers slightly too long on her bottom, her sexiness is played to emphasize her strength and is always under her control. In the end it’s a relief she ends up friendzoning* the ever sexless Hunt, who is nowhere near as interesting a leading man as she deserves, no matter how often the movie farcically tells us he is ‘the personification of destiny’.
That Ilsa represents one of so many strong elements which the movie puts into play in its first half only emphasizes how disappointing it is when they all start to fall in on each other in the second. Ilsa virtually holds the movie up on her own, but even she gets sidelined more and more as the screenwriters remember that Hunt, unfortunately, should probably start participating in the narrative of his own movie. The plot’s unknown elements are a rich source of intrigue early on, but undermined with every new reveal. The Syndicate’s motives are imprecise at best, their plan barely substantial enough to merit the use of the word, and their numbers seemingly comprise little more than leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and a few bodyguards. Where the plotlessness of Ghost Protocol worked because that movie was basically a cartoon, here we are asked to take the stakes seriously, making the myriad logical fallacies and situational contrivances all the more apparent. A late scene in which Hunt and co. apprehend the British Prime Minister at a charity auction devolves into a non-stop stream of exposition, none of it enhancing the plot or characters and tying itself in knots to emphasize poorly developed themes while contriving to explain why none of the characters are going to be arrested immediately afterwards.
As the main villain, Solomon Lane is seemingly aiming for something along the lines of the psychopathic bureaucrat that Philip Seymour Hoffman embodied so perfectly in Mission: Impossible 3, but instead comes across as an annoying, whiny doofus, achieving what little he does through the ineptitude of others rather than his own competence. The bafflingly ridiculous manner in which he meets his fate, the last note of an already anti-climactic climax, is one of a series of misjudgments casting a character intended as creepy and sinister as meek and ineffectual instead. The movie never descends into being outright bad, but its inability to produce satisfying or even logical answers to the questions so enigmatically posed lead to the whole thing coming perilously close to collapse. As the first movie proves, low-key suspense can be an extremely effective tool in the action genre, but only when the writing is strong enough to fill the gap left by the absence of bombast, which is sadly not the case here. Ferguson’s Ilsa is worth the price of admission on her own and then some, to the extent that I’d be far more excited about her getting a spin-off of her own than a sixth entry in a series which continues to only just delight more than it frustrates.
*And yes, before someone asks, I am using the notion of ‘friendzoning’ entirely sarcastically.