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Non-Review Review: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation moves like the clappers.

The movie speeds along through a selection of impressive stunt work and setpieces, constantly ramping up the tension and raising the stakes. The threat is constantly larger, the game ever more deadly. The film escalates and escalates, to the point where foreign heads of state are nothing more than pieces on a chessboard, fodder for impressive action sequences and swift double-crosses. In a way, this is the approach that made Mission: Impossible III and Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol taken to its logical conclusion. Momentum is key.

Cruising...

Cruising…

However, there are points where it feels like Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation hits the limit of this approach – that it serves as a control case to demonstrate just how far you can push this sort of suped up storytelling without breaking the emotional tethers that hold all this together. There are several major emotional beats in Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation that simply don’t land because the film has never eased its foot off the gas long enough to develop any of its characters beyond familiar archetypes.

This is perhaps the biggest problem with the film, but writer and director Christopher McQuarrie is shrewd enough that he never lets it get entirely out of hand. If the movie’s biggest emotional moments never have the necessary punch, that is not enough to sink the film; there is always another big action setpiece or another reversal or another tense thrill ride waiting after this underwhelming character beat. Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation might move so fast that it seldom has room for its characters, but it also moves so fast that this is seldom a fatal flaw.

Winging it...

Winging it…

The plot mechanics of Rogue Nation are set up rather quickly and bluntly. The film starts with a set-up that most early Mission: Impossible films might have taken an act to establish. In the teaser, a stray piece of dialogue confirms that the Impossible Mission Force is currently under scrutiny; in the sequence following the teaser, the viewer is informed that Ethan Hunt has spent the past year hunting a dark shadow organisation – “an anti-IMF” – that has branded itself “the Syndicate.”

Many other action films would carefully establish these premises with some set-up and action. It is not too difficult to imagine a version of Rogue Nation that opens with an IMF mission that goes horribly wrong so as to explain the increased scrutiny the organisation faces or devotes its opening half-hour to Ethan investigating the possible existence of “the Syndicate” before getting into the meat of the plot. There is an impressive directness to Rogue Nation, a film that starts from these premises instead of building to them.

A night at the opera...

A night at the opera…

So a lot of information is conveyed to the audience in a short amount of time. Ethan is informed that “the Syndicate” does exist, just in time for the mastermind to show up and execute a character who was only introduced in the scene immediately prior so as to suggest some sort of emotional connection between the hero and the villain of the piece. The film gets to the inevitable “Ethan Hunt goes renegade” section of the plot in almost record time, even making a six-month time-jump to serve as a joke to the CIA director who has vowed to chase our protagonist down.

This approach makes a great deal of sense on some levels, and works very well in a number of ways. With the plot set-up relegated to efficient exposition and rather blunt narrative beats, there is more room for the big fun setpieces. After all, nobody seems particularly likely to remember the specific details of a given Mission: Impossible film; they remember the visuals. The helicopter chasing the train; our hero dangling from the roof; our hero getting blown sideways during an impressive jailbreak; our hero scaling an impossibly tall skyscraper; a chase in a sandstorm.

Off-road...

Off-road…

The plots that enabled these action setpieces are often incidental. There is something refreshing in the way that Christopher McQuarrie trusts the audience to recognise the familiar tropes and just run with them. Rogue Nation is like action movie cliché bingo; a rogue hero, a heroic organisation under scrutiny, a villain who is a dark mirror to our hero, a pointless death of a minor character to make this all personal, the implication our hero has been emotionally compromised. Audiences instinctively understand these beats, so Rogue Nation doesn’t over-explain them.

Rogue Nation has a number of memorable action beats, and it is structured to emphasise and to capitalise on those. In particular, the first act features a wonderful “spies at the opera” sequence that seems like a blatant homage to the best sequence from Quantum of Solace. It is beautifully shot and choreographed, shrewdly paced, and distinctive. Much of the advertising campaign is built around a similarly bold heist at a data storage facility, which finds Ethan Hunt trying desperately to hold his breath.

It's a wash...

It’s a wash…

Rogue Nation works best at moments like this, capitalising on the fact that most of its characters are archetypes that live or die based on the charm of the cast. The first half of the film is powered by the decision to place Ethan Hunt and Benji Dunn on a madcap roadtrip together; not because the two have a deep or meaningful relationship, but because Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg work very well together and watching them play off one another is great fun. (In fact, one of the movie’s best gags sees Ethan botching a stock action hero stunt in a sequence with Benji.)

However, there are problems and limitations with this approach. As with Ghost Protocol, the villain at the heart of Rogue Nation is primarily defined as an absence; he is a character who causes the various action setpieces to happen through a complicated web of cause and effect, but he never feels like a fully-formed character. He exists to be menacing and sinister, and the movie works quite well within those limitations. Sean Harris is an actor who can convey an incredible amount of menace in a manner that seems effortless.

Shouldering the blame...

Shouldering the blame…

The film is never too bothered about our villain and his motivations. In the opening act, it is suggested that he plans to recruit Ethan Hunt to join his dark cabal of intelligence operatives; if so, then why did he brutally murder that employee in front of Hunt? That execution exists to suggest an emotional motivation for the conflict at the heart of the film, but it doesn’t make any sense in terms of narrative. Ethan Hunt speculates as to the motivations driving his adversary, but the film never allows the character any moment of humanity or complexity.

In fact, “the Syndicate” seems to exist less as a complex geopolitical organisation with its own agenda and more as a post-9/11 bogeyman. Ethan fashions together a list of atrocities orchestrated by the sinister spy network, describing them as “links in a chain.” As with films like Jurassic World, there is the implication that horrific events no longer happen in isolation or due to bad luck; everything is carefully planned and structured, with a lot of the evil in the world tied together by some malevolent force working behind the scenes.

Plane sailing...

Plane sailing…

This approach feels shallow. In particular, it means that there is no real emotional stake in anything that occurs. Characters spend a significant portion of the film questing Ethan’s motivations; several supporting players wonder why he is so dedicated to hunting down “the Syndicate.” It is suggested that Ethan is paranoid in his monomania, that he is blinded by his fixation on his opponent. It is very much a stock spy movie trope – is the hero detached enough to do his job? – but it doesn’t feel earned here; the relationship is not developed enough to support it.

The characters in Rogue Nation works best as archetypes played by likable actors. There is something quite fun about a car chase sequence where Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner complain about being stuck in a four-wheel drive as Tom Cruise warns Simon Pegg to put his seatbelt on. It works less well when the plot requires us to emotionally invest in byzantine plotting and underdeveloped grudges. In the film’s third act, we get an awkward expository history of “the Syndicate”, but it is beside the point; this is not what anybody (including the film itself) is here for.

Tough call...

Tough call…

It is also worth noting that Rogue Nation is decidedly nostalgic in its aesthetic. When the CIA director criticises the IMF, he is able to pull together a wealth of evidence from the previous four films; he even mentions the iconic infiltration of Langley in the original film. The film is bookended with Ethan receiving a sinister variation of the “your mission…” briefing. The first IMF safehouse to appear in Rogue Nation is a record store with a specialty in vinyl. There is a conscious sense that the film has an eye on its past.

In a way, it fits quite comfortably with the aesthetic of the summer’s other nineties sequels; there is a clear sense of “Mission: Impossible” as a collection of images and signifiers that might be evoked and exploited as much as a generic catch-all description of a wildly disconnected series of spy films. Due to the radically different styles of the franchise’s directors, the four films are each very distinct from one another; Rogue Nation never fixates on the past to the same extent as Jurassic World or Terminator Genisys, but there are hints of the same nostalgia.

James who?

James who?

Rogue Nation is not quite as well-balanced as Mission: Impossible III or Ghost Protocol were. However, it is energetic and dynamic. It never stops long enough for its problems to reach critical mass. There is a n incredible sense of forward momentum to the whole thing, which really carries it off.

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2 Responses

  1. It is disappointing that in your review there is no mention of Rebecca Ferguson as she plays a major part in this movie and was very good in it (although it would have been good to see Paula Patton reprise her role from MI4). I have gone back and watched all the other Mission Impossible movies again after seeing this one and I would put it up with MI4 as the best (the first movie seems so dated and plot obvious now).

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