The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Written by Nick Jones.

Photo from the article 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.

<i>Mission: Impossible</i> (Brian DePalma, 1996)
Mission: Impossible (Brian DePalma, 1996)
It’s a controversial claim, but I consider the first Mission: Impossible (1996) to be one of the best action blockbusters in the genre’s history. Brian De Palma may have felt constrained by the demands of a Hollywood tentpole, but this rarely shows: the film contains his trademark prowling camera, split-diopter shots, (relatively) long takes and Dutch angles, and even finds the time to be deeply distrustful of women and play some amusing tricks with point of view and the threat of visibility. Some accused it of being ‘too cold’, and presumably these same people thought Carrie was ‘too scary’, Scarface ‘too garish’, and Body Double ‘too exploitative’. De Palma, along with Cruise and writer David Koepp, nonetheless crafted a hugely influential post-Cold War thriller about surveillance, desperation, and files on computers in hard-to-reach rooms. Nonetheless, De Palma did not return for the sequel, which instead drafted in hot new Hollywood asset John Woo. Woo warmed things up considerably with a love story, endless shots of Sydney harbour, and a deadly virus that could destroy the world. The geopolitical dynamics nodded at in the first film are long gone, and Hunt is now a bona-fide motorcycling, martial-arts-fighting, dove-accompanied action hero. In this the film is distinctly, unmistakeably the work of its Hong Kong auteur, and if it toys with anonymity for long stretches (that race track scene goes on for hours), it makes up for it with a characteristic rambling action finale resembling that of his earlier Face/Off.

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.

<i>Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol</i> (Brad Bird, 2011)
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)
So, three movies down, the tone of the franchise varies from coldly clinical to earnestly ridiculous to breezily sensationalist. Another twist seemed to come when Brad Bird - a Simpsons alumnus and director of Pixar’s Ratatouille and The Incredibles - was hired for Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Did this mark a move into outright parody? Not quite. Showing De Palma’s attention to set pieces, Woo’s penchant for ridiculous action, and Abrams’ tendency to treat everything as a tongue-in-cheek exercise in convention (Abrams stayed on as executive producer, as he does too for number five), Bird made the film his own through little details like the gadgets that never work properly, odes to the importance of friends and family, and a pervasive Roger-Moore-Bond vibe. His touch was indeed light, but perhaps too light for this franchise, too eager to toe the line and provide poster-ready set pieces and necessary dramatic arcs without really investing them with much feeling.

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.’

Since this is a Mission: Impossible film, there is a central heist set piece in which Cruise’s body is precariously, dangerously exposed. De Palma’s Langley break-in is a classic Hitchcockian suspense sequence; Woo’s immediate follow-up in a skyscraper is on the other hand a dangerously superficial and tension-free encore. Abrams shoots a Vatican break-in as though it was anywhere else with ornate corridors and gothic sewers (and, as mentioned, he chickens out entirely from showing another heist in Shanghai), while Bird’s Burj Khalifa climb has become a celebrated example of physical risk captured on film. By contrast McQuarrie dunks Hunt in an underwater server room, and the danger is not alarms going off, vertiginous drops or guards bursting in but the capacity of the human body itself. Each submerged shot is a lengthy, digitally-assisted long-take, emphasising duration itself and turning this into a danger. It is indicative of this film’s concerted application of its themes that, unlike any of his preceding trials, Hunt for the first time is found wanting, his mission literally impossible. That is, until his prone, unconscious (well, actually dead) body is hauled to safety by one of his compatriots, the improbably named Ilsa Faust.

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.

Their developing bond also speaks to the film’s interest in friendship, which, as in Ghost Protocol, is asserted as an important but neglected touchstone of contemporary spycraft. Nonetheless, I find McQuarrie’s portrayal of this far more convincing than Bird’s. Toward the end of Rogue Nation, Cruise’s physical actions are subtly mirrored by other members of his team, underscoring the slow reinstatement of a group aesthetic. This culminates in Hunt’s invitation to the villain, now caught, to ‘meet the IMF’ as the five protagonists all gather round. The power of this moment has quite literally been carefully built - our earlier glimpses of screwdrivers and panels here pay-off in an ‘ah-ha’ moment as we find out the team have been constructing a glass box in which to seal the villain, itself a sharp return jab from Hunt after he was himself captured in a glass box at the start of the film (right after the Shadow Wilson reference). More than this, the disclosure of this trap relies on its attenuated lead-up: all the debates between the team about what course of action to take, all the critiques of Hunt’s single-mindedness, all the slightly meandering revelations of the fallibility of British Intelligence. This glass box, while inevitably ridiculous, is not an easy pleasure, thrown in for quick gratification, but rather an earned structural beat that works better than any explosive action sequence.

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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