Written by Nick Jones.
In one of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation’s early scenes we are told that early twentieth century jazz drummer ‘Shadow’ Wilson earned his nickname thanks to his ‘light touch’. Jazz relies on improvisation and idiosyncratic personal interpretation perhaps more than any other form of music - a player is expected to be in the moment, to respond intuitively to others and to sculpt something original from even the most well-trodden of melodies. I’d like to use this alternate take to think about the light touch that writer-director Christopher McQuarrie brings to the Mission: Impossible franchise, and how personality finds expression in the large-scale, globally-financed tentpole blockbusters of contemporary cinema. Tom Cruise is often thought of as the auteur of the franchise, and as consistent producer as well as star, he certainly makes this films his own. However, rather than thinking the films through their depiction and management of Cruise’s superstardom or his Scientology, I’d like to think about the various directors the franchise has had, and how they bring their own interests to bear on the prescriptive demands and well-trod melodies of high-gloss entertainment.
Based on a US television series from the 1960s and 1970s, the Mission: Impossible films similarly focus on Sting-style long-cons or concealed break-ins perpetrated by a covert organisation rather impossibly called the Impossible Mission Force. As John Bleasdale notes in his own alternate take on Ghost Protocol, it’s the mission that mattered most in the show, not the characters or their world. By contrast, the films hang their hat on star Tom Cruise, and, while they still feature complex masquerades, veer far more towards explosive action and physical heroics. Cruise - whose fledgling production company produced the first film in 1996, and which has only grown since - has fashioned them into his personal playground and chequebook, a reliable seam he can occasionally mine for a global hit. The character he plays, Ethan Hunt, may be remarkably bland, but the actor’s own stuntwork and publicity appearances, not to mention fluctuating public persona, all provide substance to the role, helping Cruise create a bankable series twenty years young which is unimaginable without him. But around this centre, things change.
Despite both films being hugely successful (if not unanimously praised) the Mission: Impossible brand still felt relatively undefined beyond Cruise’s presence. Things could have gone various ways, and the early involvement of David Fincher in the third film promised a return to the clinical precision and institutional complexity of De Palma’s stewardship. We will never know what this film would have looked and felt like - despite no finished script the production was moving ahead, as such productions are wont to do, and Fincher did not want a repeat of his difficult experience on Alien 3. It might be odd to suggest that Cruise and the studio’s decision to go with JJ Abrams instead was a conservative choice - after all, Abrams’s experience lay mostly in television showrunning. However, the young TV auteur delivered seemingly exactly what was expected of him, his Mission: Impossible III being an inflated but transparent remake of his popular show Alias. Abrams’s knack for bringing a ‘steady hand’ to a proven franchise while also rejuvenating it for a wider audience is seemingly not in doubt any more, but I find his work for Cruise too automatic, too programmed, too routine. It’s not for nothing that this was the lowest grossing entry of the franchise. Neither De Palma nor Woo offered the lightest of touches (just look at those doves…), but the struggles they had in making the material they were given speak to their own concerns and pathologies are inscribed across their films like cigarette burns. Yet Abrams is so resolutely in his comfort zone that there is no creative tension at all. This is amplified by televisual gambits like an opening flashforward to a tense encounter near the narrative’s end for no reason other than to hook us early (‘how will Hunt get into and out of that one?!’), and the plot’s reliance on an undefined object which, though called the Rabbit’s Foot, may as well be referred to as The Abrams McGuffin. The complete omission of Hunt’s most ‘impossible’ task in Shanghai, an omission the film brazenly calls attention to like a ‘scene missing’ card, only adds to the feeling that nothing is at stake.
Which brings us, finally, to this latest instalment. If we think of Rogue Nation as a cover version, then how does it turn the melodies it must play into something distinctive, personal? McQuarrie’s previous films have all consciously reworked existing material, and done so in odd conditions. His debut, The Way of the Gun, was a self-conscious take on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with added pregnancies. His audition for Mission: Impossible was Jack Reacher, which cast Cruise as the titular 6.5ft barrel-chested bruiser from Lee Child’s popular books. A questionable project, then, but one the film brought off with some aplomb. McQuarrie gave it a clean seventies vibe and let scenes play long. Outside the mandated title character he showed flair with casting: both Rosamund Pike and Werner Herzog (yes, that one) displayed the kind of idiosyncratic energy formerly de riguer for genre fare but which has unfortunately fallen out of fashion.
If McQuarrie’s technique is defined by anything, it’s not quite nostalgia, nor methodical patience exactly, but rather a kind of calm respect for actors, craft and situations. We can see this in the long, static takes of The Way of the Gun, the unhurried pace of Jack Reacher, and even the attention to process, repetition and indoctrination at the heart of his script for Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow. Likewise, Rogue Nation repeatedly highlights situational logistics and gradually developing actions. In the Turandot set piece, Puccini’s music and the backstage dynamics of live theatre are given far more recognition than might reasonably be expected. The result is an exciting, amusing sequence in which shifting spatial relations are always clear but never laboured. If Quantum of Solace’s similar Tosca sequence was indicative of that film’s expressionistic, deliriously splintered ambience, then so too this night at the opera sums up this film’s more measured, declarative approach. Here, then, is McQuarrie playing the tune ever so subtly his own way. He even lightly lets us in on the mechanics of the whole thing - witness the line ‘ready for act one’, spoken just as the film’s plot gets properly moving, or pretty much anything involving Alec Baldwin’s CIA chief, such as his belittling of previous IMF adventuring in the context of a congressional hearing, or his delicious description of Hunt as ‘the living manifestation of destiny.’
Ilsa herself is at the heart of the story. Again, this is a new touch. Yes, there is an important and mysterious file on a well-guarded computer, but the film seeks something other than get-the-McGuffin or kidnap-counter-kidnap narrative patterning of the kind that so floods contemporary thrillers, and does so by organising the story around Ilsa and portraying her not merely as a shadowy femme fatale but as a flesh-and-blood human being, or as close to one as we’re likely to see in these films. Rogue Nation may not pass the Bechdel test, but Ilsa is at the heart of the story, and the mutual interest between her and Hunt is intense but thankfully unconsummated (after all, I think he is still married). Rebecca Ferguson’s portrayal of Ilsa has been rightly praised, and her self-assertion provides a welcome companion to Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa - as many have noted, Ilsa saves Hunt as often as he saves her.
In the franchise’s signature image characters tear off facemasks to reveal another character, usually Cruise, beneath. It is tempting to conclude here with the suggestion that, for all the different guises the various directors bring to the films, Cruise is always their ultimate author. However, I think there’s more to it than this. Mission: Impossible is an unusual series, having lasted twenty years without reboot, spin-off or new star, and with a strange four-to-six year gap between instalments. It has no comforting nostalgia to fall back on, like the Bonds, nor a consistent geopolitical and aesthetic terrain to plough, like the Bournes. It reinvents itself with each film, but not extensively, nor overwhelmingly. The distinctiveness of the films may have been consciously toned down in these last two, neither Bird nor McQuarrie being the kind of brand names whose aesthetic hang-ups are as visible as those point-of-view shots, those slow-motion doves, or that relentless visual frenzy. Nonetheless, these remain films that feed productively off the minor nuances of their handlers. McQuarrie’s approach to the material is for me the most enjoyable since De Palma’s, but you are welcome to disagree, and the inevitable sixth instalment will no doubt carry the shrewd impression of its director as much as those that came before (although it would be interesting for McQuarrie to come back, to see how he, like Cruise’s character in Edge of Tomorrow, might run through the same motions older and wiser). These films may be out of step with the superheroic cinematic universes that flood the multiplexes today, but they show the extent to which franchise filmmaking can subtly toy with pre-set aesthetic signatures and narrative situations in order to produce something relatively novel. In the precision-targeted mission that is the Hollywood blockbuster, the lightest of touches can go a long way.
This Alternate Take was published on September 03, 2015.
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