“Mr. Hunt, this isn’t mission difficult, it’s mission impossible. “Difficult” should be a walk in the park for you”
Dir: Christopher McQuarrie
Bad Robot, USA, 2015
Starring: Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames
There is a moment in the first instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise, now two decades and five films deep, wherein a character has his face graphically impaled upon the mechanism of an elevator shaft. Picture the scene – I lay awake far past my bedtime, watching Mission Impossible (1996) on channel 4 with the sound on mute and the subtitles on so as not to wake my parents in the next room. The impossible mission of the title begins to crumble inexplicably, each member of the team being disposed of one by one in increasingly inventive ways by an unseen assassin, up until the aforementioned moment in the elevator. The hacker, played briefly by Emilio Estevez, is positioned on top of the elevator itself and, through the tampering of the saboteur, begins to accelerate upwards towards his brutal death. This event occurs within the first ten minutes of the film and to this day I still find myself somewhat anxious around elevators, the final seconds and the gruesome impaling looping somewhere in my mind as the cables begin to wind and the steel proceeds to shift.
Of course, Mission Impossible was directed by Brian de Palma, a then established master of energetic set pieces – the pram on the stairs of The Untouchables (1987); the climatic showdown of Scarface (1983) and the elaborate massacre in Carrie (1976) all acting as immediate points of reference for their respective films. At one point, Emilio’s demise in the dimly lit shaft functioned as a personal encapsulation of the tone and rhythm of Mission Impossible, however we now find ourselves four films and as many directors into the franchise, and the high strung tension of De Palma’s iconic first outing has been undeniably watered down.
Directing duties for the second film were subsequently inherited by John Woo, before being passed down a chain of action-thriller auteurs, including familiar names such as J.J Abrams and Brad Bird, before finally landing in the seasoned lap of veteran screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, literary brain behind the labyrinthine The Usual Suspects (1995) and the cerebral Edge of Tomorrow (2014). Over the years, the franchise has descended into mediocrity, the quality arcing downwards on a dwindling trajectory that embraced the many emerging clichés of 21st century action cinema.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) fares a little better than its predecessor, the bloated Ghost Protocol (2011), but still tumbles down the many pitfalls littered throughout the more commercial side of the genre – An overlong narrative, an overreliance on a very specific aesthetic and a completely unnecessary and fluctuating romantic interest. The plot concerns the dissolution of the IMF, the ever secretive and opaque spy agency, due to their unorthodox methods and procedures. Ethan Hunt, espionage extraordinaire, is now a fugitive, attempting to clear his name and eliminate the leader of an independent, shadowy and seemingly non-existent network of bad bastards with silencers on their pistols.
At this point in the series however, the plot is borderline redundant. Each narrative of the instalment since MI:1 has functioned simply to serve the action sequences that punctuate them. Even with the contributions of an academy award winning screenwriter, the plot still falls flat and could be applied easily to any set of characters in any other action film with arguably the same degree of emotional resonance. Where the series has always thrived, and still does, is in its set pieces. Reviewing a Mission Impossible film and criticising its thin plot is akin to ordering a discount kebab from a squalid backstreet restaurant and bemoaning its lack of subtle flavours and white wine sauce. You knew all along what you were getting and, by now, you definitely expect what you pay for.
From the very opening sequence, a breakneck pace permeates through each chase, shootout and choreographed scrap. Hunt hangs from the side of a cargo plane during takeoff, jumps into the abyss of a water powered generator with only three minutes of air, and grapples with a seven foot tall Russian enforcer above a performance of Turandot in the Vienna opera house. It’s all incredibly well assembled, a fine example of how modern day action can function when gifted a big budget and a sense of grandeur, but these sequences come so thick and fast that by the end they are struggling to recapture the bravado of their earlier pedigree, spluttering and stumbling until the film reaches a completely underwhelming and, quite frankly, hilarious apprehending of the villain.
So, even Rouge Nation’s action cannot save it from reverberating indifference. Had McQuarrie rationed his spectacle and distributed it more sparsely throughout the film we may have had something that reached the lofty heights of the seemingly out of reach De Palma effort. If you cast your minds back briefly to 1996, you may remember the series of increasingly impressive action sequences that De Palma constructed, beginning with a simple fistfight and ending with a helicopter nearly decapitating Tom Cruise after flying through a train tunnel. The point is that these sequences were gradually ratcheted up in terms of immediacy and chaos, a steady flow of thrills slowly released to the audience to build the tension and culminate in the sheer anarchy of the finale, as opposed to the series of equally elaborate chases and firefights found in Rouge Nation, an element that causes the viewer to acclimatise rather than anticipate.
In simple terms, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is thrilling, then boring, then thrilling again, then once again boring. Who knows, you may find it infinitely more rewarding to simply edit the film down to its action sequences and to watch a montage of motorcycle chases and impossibly accurate pistol work, absorbing what little plot actually matters through the grunts of Tom Cruise and the worried face of Simon Pegg. All I know is that I went to the kitchen and made four cups of tea during the viewing of Rouge Nation and I still had a strong, comprehendible grasp on the intricacies of the plot after having missed numerous twists and a vast spectrum of developments.
- Kristofer Thomas