MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — ROGUE NATION (2015) Movie Review (Spoilers)
The newest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects and Edge of Tomorrow, director of Jack Reacher) from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce. It’s the second M:I film produced by Bad Robot, and thus the third with involvement from J.J. Abrams (who directed M:i:III but apparently did not produce it, I was surprised to learn recently). It continues the trend of continuity between films and the ensemble flavor of Ghost Protocol, with Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn and Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt returning from that film, alongside Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Ving Rhames’s Luther Stickell, who has a sizeable role this time after having just a cameo in GP. Having both Benji and Luther prominently in the same film could be a problem, since they fill the same role on the team, but this is resolved by having them spend a lot of the film apart, with Benji supporting Ethan and Luther supporting Brandt. Paula Patton’s Jane Carter is neither seen nor mentioned, with the female lead instead being Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a disavowed British agent whose loyalties are unclear for much of the film.
The film rather wisely starts out by immediately disposing of the big vertiginous Tom Cruise stunt sequence that was inevitably going to be plastered all over the trailers and promotions and thus wouldn’t be a surprise anyway — namely, the scene where he clings to the side of a cargo plane as it takes off. Fittingly, Ethan’s first appearance in the film has him doing a Patented Tom Cruise Run to leap onto the plane, and his plane cling isn’t exactly Ethan Hunt Climbs Things but is pretty close. (Previously, Cruise has had short hair in every odd-numbered picture and long hair in every even-numbered one; here he’s sort of in between.) The sequence is fun and deftly directed, and Joe Kraemer’s score immediately makes an impression equal in strength to Michael Giacchino’s work on the previous two films. Like Ghost Protocol, the teaser leads into a main title sequence that homages the titles of the original series, complete with flashforward clips of the action to come, but in a more conventional way than GP’s titles — rather evocative of the original 1996 film’s title sequence, in fact. The main title arrangement is big and brassy in a way that evokes both the 1996 Danny Elfman version and the Ghost Protocol Giacchino version.
The evocation of the ’96 film is perhaps appropriate, since this is the first sequel to directly acknowledge any events from that film. CIA Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) mentions Ethan’s iconic Langley break-in from said film, along with the destruction of the Kremlin and other events of Ghost Protocol, as part of his case that the IMF is a renegade organization that should be shut down. He actually makes an objectively good case that its secretive methods are ill-suited to the modern age of transparency and accountability, but of course we’re supposed to be rooting against him and for Brandt, who argues that the IMF has been doing good work for 40 years — which is short by about nine years, I’d say. Has the original series suddenly been retconned out of existence? Is this proof that the movies are in a separate reality from the show? Or did Brandt just misspeak? In any case, the nebulously defined committee that they’re testifying to agrees to shut down the IMF.
But Ethan doesn’t know this, as he’s going to a message drop in London to get his next assignment. I had to squee at this sequence, because the drop is in a record store and the message is encoded on a vinyl phonograph album — a callback to the 1966 pilot episode!!!!! But with a couple of twists — first, that it uses a modern laser thingy to project graphics onto the turntable lid… and second, that it turns out to be a trap laid by the Syndicate, an evil organization that Ethan’s been hunting down since the closing moments of Ghost Protocol (said to be a year before, even though that was four years ago). It’s fun to hear the formula of the message subverted by the bad guys. Ethan sees a mysterious bespectacled man gun down the pretty store clerk who was his contact, before he’s gassed unconscious as the “self-destruct” part of the message.
Ethan awakes in the clutches of the Syndicate, which apparently plans to use torture to break him and turn him to their side. He’s helped to escape by Ilsa Faust, a mole within the Syndicate, but he finds from Brandt that he’s out in the cold and that Hunley doesn’t believe in the Syndicate’s existence. But he’s determined to find the bespectacled man and get justice, so he goes rogue. Cut to six months later, with Brandt working under Hunley and Benji as a CIA analyst who has to trick weekly polygraph tests to insist he has no loyalty to Ethan. But Ethan arranges to get Benji’s help at an opera in Vienna, whereupon he encounters Ilsa apparently trying to assassinate the Austrian chancellor, though there are two other assassins on hand to take her out if she fails. Ethan foils the assassination — the same way Ilsa had planned to — and they escape together, but the Syndicate has a backup plan and foils their foiling.
Ilsa breaks away to preserve her cover and report to Syndicate head Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), who keeps letting her live despite her “failures” because it’s convenient to the plot — err, because he sees “potential” in her. Meanwhile, Ethan explains to Benji that the Syndicate is an “anti-IMF,” consisting of former spies believed dead or missing and employing IMF-style tactics to fake deadly accidents in order to tear down the world order.
Lane gives Ilsa one more chance, sending her to Casablanca to break into an ultra-high security data vault, a job that Ethan and Benji end up helping her with when they learn it’s to access Lane’s ledger listing all the Syndicate’s agents. This is the sequence with Ethan diving into an underwater facility and trying to hold his breath for several minutes, and it’s another tour-de-force action set piece, with the underwater sound design being particularly impressive. Ilsa saves Ethan’s life when he drowns — the second time in the series that the female lead has gotten to bring Ethan back from the brink of death — but then she breaks away with the retrieved data, and Ethan and Benji literally run into Brandt and Luther as they chase after her. A car chase reminiscent of The Italian Job gives way to a motorcycle chase reminiscent of M:I-2, but Ilsa gets away.
She takes the data to Attlee, the head of British intelligence, and demands that she be brought in, but he turns out to be a ruthless bastard who insists she go back in and assassinate Ethan to prove her allegiance to Lane. He also deletes the stolen data on her thumb drive, though of course Benji made a backup, so Ethan’s team now has the only copy. And it’s not a ledger, but a “red box” file that only the Prime Minister of the UK can open. Clearly Lane intends to kidnap the PM. But when the team tracks down Ilsa to confront her, Lane kidnaps Benji in order to force Ethan to kidnap the PM. This was the plan all along. (Why? Seems needlessly convoluted.)
It looks like Ethan’s going to go through with it, and Brandt argues against doing something so insane. We cut to Brandt calling Hunley to tell him what Ethan’s planning. It’s pretty easy to guess that in between scenes, Ethan spelled out a con game that Brandt is playing along with, only pretending to betray him. Brandt lures Hunley to London, where they end up in a room with the PM and Attlee, the latter of whom maneuvers the PM into revealing to Hunley that the Syndicate was a proposal of Attlee’s to found a rogue agency that could act with impunity — a proposal that the PM rejected but that Attlee carried forward anyway. I guessed pretty early in the scene that Attlee was actually Ethan in a mask, since the actor they cast, Simon McBurney, seemed similar to Cruise in size and facial structure. And of course it was, though it’s unclear how Ethan deduced some of the things he reveals as Attlee. They’ve also lured the real Attlee to take the fall, while arranging for Hunley to take the credit for catching him. With Hunley now on their side, they use the PM’s biometrics to open the file, which is Attlee’s financial records intended to fund the Syndicate. (The most awkward moment in the film is here — just before the truth is revealed to Hunley, when he still thinks Ethan is coming to kill the PM, he issues an overwrought warning about how Ethan is this unstoppable force, “the living manifestation of destiny” or some such thing, which just comes out of nowhere and is way too aggrandizing to Ethan. We don’t even get a comedy beat of embarrassment when Hunley realizes that Ethan was standing right there listening to his overeffusive words.)
Lane sets up a trap to force Ethan to turn over the account numbers lest Benji and Ilsa be blown up, but Ethan outmaneuvers him — he memorized the data and erased the disk, so now Lane needs him alive. He gets Benji released and then protects Ilsa from being shot by Syndicate men, and this leads into a final chase through the streets wherein Ethan and Ilsa eventually get separated so that they can each have their own individual action climax. Lane shows up to confront Ethan directly, conveniently forgetting that whole “need him alive” thing, and Ethan leads him into a nice little trap set up by Luther and Benji — a trap that, refreshingly, ends with the villain apparently still alive and unconscious. And the way it’s done, which calls back the record-store incident that was Ethan and Lane’s first meeting, is more satisfying than Lane’s death would’ve been. Anyway, Ethan and Ilsa say their farewells — platonically, I’m glad to say, though that’s as close as the film comes to acknowledging that Ethan still has a wife out there somewhere.
The movie ends with an odd little scene where Hunley convinces the Nebulous Committee to reinstate the IMF, whereupon Brandt tells him, “Welcome to the IMF, Mister Secretary.” Now, that’s very odd. It implies that the Secretary is the head of the IMF. In the past, it always seemed that he was the secretary of defense or state, a cabinet-level post that oversaw the intelligence community. Having him be exclusively attached to the IMF and appointed by some kind of committee is hard to make sense of. It’s also a disappointing ending in another sense, because when Ilsa went off to her ill-defined future, I imagined the closing scene I wanted to see: Ilsa some time later showing up to a message drop and then hearing Ethan’s voice say, “Good morning, Ms. Faust. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” I think that would’ve been a perfect ending. Concluding the film without formally bringing Ilsa on board feels incomplete, particularly since it leaves the IMF as an all-male outfit throughout the film.
Rogue Nation was a pretty solid action movie, very well-made. It doesn’t seem to have the plausibility problems of the first two films, and it has a level of humor close to that of Ghost Protocol. I’m getting tired of Ethan always being on the run from his own government, but at least it was set up as a continuation of the events of previous films. Indeed, I enjoy the way this film felt like a continuation of the previous one, even more so than GP did; it’s a refreshing change from the first decade of the franchise, where each film felt like an unrelated standalone. RN didn’t have as strong a character story at its core as the previous two, but what filled that void was the interplay and friendship among the core cast. This is the first M:I film where every member of Ethan’s team is a returning character, and that history gives weight to the character interactions, which is good, because the characters are given little development otherwise. There’s also Ilsa’s story as a reluctant double agent trying to balance her allegiances and stay alive — perhaps not very deep or emotional, but well-handled by Ferguson, who’s a very strong presence and an effective counterpart to Cruise. There’s a degree of male gaze directed toward her by the camera on occasion, but she never really feels objectified, since she’s so poised and in control.
I have particular praise for Joe Kraemer’s score. It integrates the Schifrin themes as strongly as Giacchino’s did, if not more so, and builds new motifs on similar chord structures so that it all feels of a piece, not only with the Schifrin themes but with the Giacchino scores, which did much the same thing. Kraemer actually uses “The Plot” more extensively than Giacchino did, accompanying a lot of the team’s machinations; although, like Danny Elfman in the first film, he never quotes the entire melody, sticking mainly to the first few bars. The most extensive use of “The Plot” is in the Casablanca sequence, where it gets reworked to have an “Arabian” sound to it.
The movie is not without flaws, though. For one thing, it fails the Bechdel test. Ilsa is the only significant female character; of the two others, one (the doomed record-shop clerk) is just there to be killed to motivate Ethan, and the other (an aide to Hunley played by Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu, who’s prominently credited for less than a minute of screen time) is apparently just there to satisfy the Chinese funding partners. Neither of them interacts with Ilsa at all. I’d say it passes the Mako Mori test, in that Ilsa has a clearly drawn arc of her own that isn’t about supporting a male character’s arc, but the overwhelming maleness of most of the cast is distracting. (The Nebulous Committee, for instance, consists entirely of old white men plus one token old black man.) Looking back over the series, though, it seems that none of the films pass the test fully, except maybe the first, which has three named women on the initial team, participating in the group conversation about the mission.
It also doesn’t feel as much like Mission: Impossible as GP did. It’s more in the vein of the second and third films in being driven more by big action than by devious con games. The sequence with the Prime Minister and Attlee comes the closest to an IMF-style con game, and the infiltration of the Casablanca vault has a touch of it (since it’s basically a variation on the classic IMF tactic of inserting fake credentials for a team member into the target’s records). But mostly it’s action over calculating schemes and deceptions, and Ethan and the team spend too much time improvising rather than playing out intricate chess games plotted in advance. The Nebulous Committee even argues that Ethan’s methods are “indistinguishable from luck,” which is pretty much anathema to the IMF of the TV series, wherein every move was calculated from the start and very little was ever left to chance. I regret that the film series has become so defined by its big action, because I’d love to see an M:I movie that was all about a big sting operation. Oh, and the Syndicate is said to be an “anti-IMF,” but its methods seem to consist mainly of snipers and bombs and the like. Dougray Scott in M:I-2 was more convincing in his use of IMF-style tactics for evil, and loyal readers, I’m as astonished as you to hear myself saying something positive about M:I-2. Granted, though, lack of IMFery isn’t a dealbreaker for an M:I movie; the third film had little of it, but it’s still one of the two strongest films in the series. It’s just that GP was the first film in the series that actually felt like Mission: Impossible rather than The Adventures of Ethan Hunt, and I was hoping RN would continue the trend. It did not.
And the lack of character development compared to the previous two films does disappoint me in retrospect. The dramatic tension among the team members played well, but there was little sense of backstory or personal lives like there was in the previous two films. It was all about the job and the plot business they were dealing with. The past two films gave Ethan a personal life that humanized him, but that was totally absent here, with Ethan defined totally by his quest to bring down the Syndicate. So it’s shallower overall, though not as shallow as the first two films.
If anything, RN reminds me of M:I-2 in a lot of ways. It’s a heavily action-driven film featuring a lengthy motorcycle chase; it features a villain using IMF-style tactics for evil; and it centers on Ethan’s competition with the villain for the allegiance of the sole significant female character in the film. But it’s much better in most respects: the action is less cartoony; the female lead is a protagonist in her own right and not merely a lust interest; and the rest of the IMF team functions as a full ensemble rather than just being tacked on.
So out of the five films so far, I would rank Rogue Nation as a close third behind the previous two films, and well ahead of the first two. I still think of the first two as failed pilots for a series that didn’t really get underway until J.J. Abrams took the helm. That series proper is now up to three films that have maintained a pretty consistent level of quality throughout. This is the weakest of the three, but by a narrow margin.