Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Brian de Palma’s theatrical reboot of the 1960/70’s TV show was a film I remember being very bored by. Sure, the Langley break-in scene was great, as was that finale in the tunnel, but the rest of it made me want to go to sleep.
Of course, that might have had something to do with the fact that it was 1996, and I was just eight years old, suffering through one of the earliest cinema trips I can remember. Subsequent viewing have seen my opinion on the “original” and its complex but endearingly intelligent plot, increase somewhat, and I also found myself enjoying John Woo’s take on the concept a few years later: more action heavy, but no less enjoyable.
But then, not through intentional act but just by happenstance, I never did find the time to check out Mission: Impossible III or the more recent Ghost Protocol. Then up popped Rogue Nation, with that plane stunt featured so prominently in every trailer, and my interest was piqued. Was the IMF and its titular missions worth returning to, and was it possible to jump back in to such a franchise having missed a few chapters?
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is a secret agent without an agency, after the “Impossible Missions Force” gets shut down by CIA honcho Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). That won’t deter Hunt’s mission to track down and expose the shadowy “Syndicate” though, an “anti-IMF” criminal organisation, which contains British double-agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), and is run by a mysterious bespectacled man (Sean Harris). With the help of agents Benji (Simon Pegg), Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and Stickell (Ving Rhames) Hunt aims to bring down the Syndicate and restore the name of the IMF.
When I asked my girlfriend, coming out of the cinema after the credits rolled, what she thought of Rogue Nation, her response was a simple, but definitive, “It was stupid like” before going on to compare it to the likes of Legally Blonde: turn off your brain and enjoy. And that basically sums up what I have to say about Rogue Nation. The film is enjoyable, a stand-alone extension of this popular franchise that skips along nicely and offers the requisite amount of thrills and laughs. But it is the fifth in a series of films that follow a very strict formula, and Rogue Nation’s ability to remain ingrained on your memory is fairly stunted as a result.
As a spy thriller, Rogue Nation has the standard elements: Ethan Hunt has to “go rogue”, uncover a conspiracy, take down a scary bad guy who’s a bit mad, interact with a sexy female agent, do some stunts, mess with some gadgets, laugh with some sidekicks and pull off the flip reversal that the finale must include, outsmarting the bad guy and saving the world, or the day, or whatever. While Rogue Nation contains its fair share of twists and turns, with a plot that actually has some depth, there is nothing in it that I would say ever surprised me or shocked me, or left my jaw hanging. And, for a film of this genre, the lack of ability to do that is sort of disappointing.
I get the feeling that, having decided to stick so rigidly to that formula, the production team were more concerned with the set-pieces, which the rest of the plot revolves around. Any cursory glance at the promotional material will let you know what some of them are: an underwater heist that calls back to the Langley break-in from the first one, a car chase through the streets and highways of Morocco and, of course, that plane stunt, which actually forms the cold open of the film, as Rogue Nation briefly tries to be as James Bond-ish as it can.
But a bunch of set-pieces strung together does not a good movie make, and at no point could I say that I was riveted by the unfolding action, or worried about the fates of these characters. So, they can get shot, knifed, hurt and otherwise abused, but without that kind of necessary emotional investment, Rogue Nation is lacking. I guess that’s the perils of having a long-running franchise. No one is ever going to kill James Bond off, and Ethan Hunt has rapidly assumed his place in the same territory.
And it really is the Ethan Hunt show. Cruise gives his usual accomplished performance, as comfortable in the role as he is in the many leather jackets that Hunt shows off in the course of the film, able to jump between over the top action to slapstick comedy at the drop of the hat. It’s interesting to look back on Cruise’s filmography and realise how bulletproof he has been. He’s had films that were both critical and commercial flops lately – Knight And Day, Rock of Ages, Lions For Lambs – but he keeps getting back up and cranking out more successful efforts without taking barely a break. Rogue Nation showcases why, as have many of Cruise’s more recent films: Sure he’s a bit bland, but he’s the right kind of everyman, relatable, handsome but not too handsome kind of bland, bolstering that with an acting talent that I do genuinely feel is under-appreciated. Cruise does his utmost with some iffy scriptwork, and makes Hunt into somebody that is at least interesting.
Unfortunately, everyone else falls short of the leading man, who is playing a character that others go out of their way to praise throughout Rogue Nation, as some sort of espionage ubermensch: how can Simon Pegg’s well played but ultimately just sort of “there” teach wizard Benji compare? Or Rebecca Ferguson’s sultry yet uninteresting quasi love interest, who shares little to no chemistry with Cruise (and, as the only female character of note, makes Rogue Nation a very disappointing film when it comes to gender roles)? With Baldwin, Renner and Rhames all having to settle for what are little more than extended cameos that could have been played by anyone – one must wonder why the IMF team needs two computer experts – Rogue Nation really isn’t up to all that much in the character drama or acting stakes.
A good villain might have helped alleviate this, but Sean Harris just doesn’t have it in him, or maybe the material didn’t give him the chance. He’s a decent actor who has been deserving of a bigger role for a while now (I’m looking forward to his Macduff in Justin Kuzel’s Macbeth later this year). But “Solomon Lane” is ultimately just another in what has already become a very long line of criminal geniuses trying to ape Heath Ledger’s Joker: creepy, murderous, chillingly intelligent and always one step ahead (until they aren’t). Lane just isn’t the kind of bad guy that enraptures an audience, and the attempt to manufacture an intense rivalry between him and the obsessive Hunt falls so flat that all it takes is some vague hand waving for any sense that Hunt is letting things get too personal to be dismissed from the realm of the possible.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Rogue Nation, which does deliver in all of the areas that, I suppose, are really important: the set-pieces are stylishly directed and cool, the action is well choreographed, the jokes are funny when they come and the spy elements, from babes to gadgets, get shown off. In fact, the direction in general, from Jack Reacher head Christopher McQuarrie, is generally of quite a good standard, and one has to appreciate, beyond all of the other kudos sent in its general direction, the audacity and ambition between director and lead for that airplane sequence, which really is as impressive as it is made out to be.
But even having skipped the third and fourth editions of this franchise, I was struck by how stale Rogue Nation felt. While I could claim to be credibly entertained by a spy film with the right mix of plot twists, thrilling heroics and over the top sequences, at no point in Rogue Nation’s overly-long running time – perhaps a worse flaw than anything else, considering – did I ever think that I was watching something that would stick in the mind the same way that, say, Skyfall if you wanted something close enough or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy if you wanted something in the same general area but very different, succeeded in doing. Maybe’s it’s the somewhat forgettable script, maybe it’s just that the characters don’t pop out at the audience in the way the casts of other thrillers do, maybe it’s the failure to create any kind of real romantic or sexual tension. But something is off, and it stopped Rogue Nation from reaching heights that I know, even from only seeing half of it, this franchise is capable of reaching.
Some brief spoiler talk follows
-A lot more could have been done with Alec Baldwin’s CIA man, who gets swung over to the side of the IMF with remarkable ease. Having inter-agency conflict and some consequences for the Langley job was actually a nice touch, which should have been expanded. Jeremy Renner was left floundering for two thirds of this film dealing with what turned out to be a nothing sub-plot.
-The underwater server heist was a very well but together sequence, but watching the trio plan it out proved to be a bit more entertaining than the actual job. We all knew Ethan Hunt wasn’t going to drown in the thing after all.
-I actually think that I enjoyed the sequence in the Austrian opera more. While it went on for way too long, it still had a nice mix of international intrigue and tension, along with the comedy input of Simon Pegg. I suppose that was the height of my enjoyment, which came around half an hour/45 minutes in.
-Poor Simon Pegg. Will he ever get to be anything other than the clown? Or maybe I am way off base, and he simply prefers it that way. God knows I was singularly unimpressed with his more dramatic (well, to a point) turn in The World’s End.
-Rebecca Ferguson’s spy just couldn’t do anything with the “Is she undercover/Is she a bad guy?” idea that got dropped at the end of the second act, and even less with any kind of quasi-romantic attraction between her and Hunt, which was largely stillborn as a concept. I’m only surprised that she actually survived the film.
-Come to think of it, isn’t Hunt supposed to have a wife? I could have sworn I saw that in trailers for the other films. Is she dead? Are they divorced? You’d think they’d bring her up in some fashion.
-Amazing seeing Tom Hollander show up as the British Prime Minister. An In The Loop spin-off? I like to imagine so. He was decent enough in the one scene he really got.
-I did enjoy the proxy conversation between Hunt and Lane, through a terrified bomb carrying Benji. It was a nice platform for the about face section of the plot which, while as cliché as it gets for a film like this, did wrap everything up nicely.
-And I’m not kidding about the cliché. At some point, Hunt ripping off a mask and revealing himself to be impersonating a plot-critical character will be seen more as tired plot device than a nice nod to previous films.
-At least the final confrontation between Hunt and Lane was good, tying back effectively to their first encounter, and leaving the IMF victorious over the “Syndicate”. But the appropriateness of the conclusion couldn’t really cover up how underwhelming that would be SPECTRE was, and how ineffective its head honcho was in terms of being a credible villain.
I wanted to like Rogue Nation more than I did. I suppose it is the kind of film that you can “switch off your brain” for, a two hour thrill ride where the act ending set-pieces are to be admired along with some of the wittier repartee between the principals. But looking beyond that kind of experience, Rogue Nation comes up unfortunately short. The supporting cast just don’t gel as well as they could, the plot is pedestrian stuff that everyone will have seen before, the film suffers greatly from an antagonist who is part of a legacy of villains that are now very “by the book” and the whole thing generally just unfolds with a tedium that should be absent. Liable to awaken interest only in a few select moments here and there, Rogue Nation is a film that can distract and entertain for a couple of hours, but it won’t be topping any lists of the best spy films and, I find myself surprised to say, isn’t even the best spy film I have seen this year. That was a comedy that hit all the right notes: Rogue Nation hits them only intermittently. While it is far from a worthless experience, it isn’t one that I can give a wholehearted recommendation to.
(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures).