Roundtable: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

Rogue Nation, the Summer, and the Series

Aren: Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is a blast.

Anton: It is. I had a lot of fun, probably the most fun I’ve had at the movie theatre this summer.

Aren: More than Mad Max: Fury Road?

Anton: Yes, the key word being “fun.” Mad Max is a better film—a great film—but I didn’t experience lighthearted pleasure during it. It was thrilling, terrifying, intensely gripping, and relentlessly exciting, but not fun. Rogue Nation is fun. Watching it made me feel like when I really got into a movie as a child or early adolescent—that feeling of fixed attention and pure enjoyment that I experience less and less these days.

Anders: For its sense of fun, for its filmmaking prowess, and for its classical Hollywood elements, I rank Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation second only to Fury Road as far as summer films go this year. And yes, while I still think Fury Road is a masterpiece, Mission: Impossible has the lighter touch. It still has a place for glamour and culture in its world view, whether the Puccini opera or Ethan Hunt’s and Ilsa Faust’s clothing.

Anton: These days, it’s also always nice to see a good blockbuster that isn’t a superhero flick. I know a lot of people are big on the Fast and Furious series for that, but I’ve never caught on. The M:I series is much more up my alley.

Aren: I’m a neophyte when it comes to the Fast and Furious franchise so I cannot comment there. But the Mission: Impossible series is definitely more my beat. For one thing, it exists as one of the few proper action franchises out there. Superhero films are often considered action movies, but let’s be honest, the action isn’t very important to them. They always contain fight scenes and big, violent climaxes, but they’re not interested in the form of the action. They just see the action as a necessary component to bring in the audiences. None of the 12 Marvel movies has a single action scene as interesting as any of the ones contained in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. The Mission: Impossible franchise, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with the action. If musicals are all about the song and dance sequences, then action films should be all about the action scenes. The Mission: Impossible franchise understands this.

Anders: The fight scenes and set pieces in this film are so well set up. The closest thing that I could think of in recent memory to Rogue Nation is John Wick, which Aren so eloquently argued might be the salvation of the American action film. Like John Wick, Rogue Nation has an interest in the dance-like appeal of an action scene, rather than just shoving violence in your face.

Aren: With the success of Rogue Nation, the Mission: Impossible franchise is one of the few long-running Hollywood franchises that has yet to misstep. In fact, I kind of think the films have only gotten better and better. (I really need to rewatch the first two to confirm this suspicion, however.) You could argue that Rogue Nation is the best yet. Its plot is lean and efficient. It’s not confusing, and although it doesn’t revel in some of the betrayals and layering of twists as much as the earlier instalments, it’s no slouch. The action is amazing, as well. If Ghost Protocol was all about the size of the set-pieces, constructing scenes like the climbing of the Burj Khalifa or Ethan Hunt outrunning the sandstorm that appear to outdo all competitors in terms of scale—then Rogue Nation is about the impact and the consistency of the set-pieces.

Anders: I think in retrospect that the third film is the weakest in some ways, despite the fantastic performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman and setting the stage for the fourth and fifth films in many ways.

Aren: I remember loving the third film. Just loving it. I think a rewatch would be necessary to clarify its quality though.

Anton: I don’t really remember much about that film except for Phi-Sey-Hoff interrogating Ethan Hunt. None of the action scenes have really lingered in my memory. That’s why, without rewatching the films, M:I-3 is the low point of the franchise for me. I think I like M:I-2 more than most people, even though it looks like the odd duck in the series. It’s bizarre actually—more John Woo does Hitchcock than Mission: Impossible really. The first one is a slick, twisty Euro thriller.

Anders: But you’re right, Aren, there are no complete missteps. Even the much maligned M:I-2 is a lot of fun in many ways. Re-visiting the first film the other night made me reconsider how good it is, so while I don’t think each one is better than the last, I agree that the most recent two installments could easily be considered the best.

I also agree that set pieces are the highlights of these films, in this film in particular the assassination attempt during a performance of Turandot in Vienna and the Morocco heist sequence stand out. This carries on from the first film and it’s famous Langley heist sequence. In fact, the Morocco heist is a direct call-back to that sequence, in which Ethan Hunt and his team must retrieve data from a computer that is completely cut off and isolated. While none of the set pieces alone in this film are on the scale of the Burj Khalifa sequence in Ghost Protocol, I found the collective impact of this film perhaps better. While it’s still clear that these films conceive of their big set pieces first and then build the plot around them—as Robert Towne’s script for M:I-2 did with John Woo’s signature action sequences—Rogue Nation has an intriguing idea in the Syndicate and a tautly constructed narrative that never feels haphazard or loses the viewer’s interest.

Aren: As well, it’s probably the film where the interpersonal chemistry is best. I like the dynamic the IMF team has now, with Cruise as the invincible leader, Simon Pegg’s Benji as the comic relief, Jeremy Renner’s Brandt as the straight man, and Ving Rhames’ Luther as the home base. It’s a nice balance. And here’s not to forget Alec Baldwin’s hilarious director of the C.I.A., who will surely be around for further instalments.

Anton: Perhaps one reason Rogue Nation has the best interpersonal chemistry is that it finally feels like a set team is in place. After all, only Ving Rhames has been around with Cruise since the first film. And perhaps finally they’ve found a permanent female member.

Aren: Adding Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust to the mix, who is essentially a duplicitous female Ethan Hunt, only makes a successful cast dynamic even better.

Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson

Anton: Tom Cruise is obviously the central pillar, even the foundation, of this series. Cruise might be a drawback for many viewers, but for me, he’s one of the draws of the M:I films. He’s one of the last bastions of movie star power, and his energy essentially propels the films.

Aren: Cruise remains the most entertaining movie star on the planet. He’s so committed to every film he makes and delivers such intensity in his performance. However, he’s not the sole draw here. Rebecca Ferguson is also a big part of why this film is so fun. She plays as a perfect female foil to Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. Is there much to the character emotionally? Thematically? Not really, but there isn’t much to Hunt either. Instead they’re both vehicles for awesomeness. Or, to paraphrase the words of Alec Baldwin’s Hunley, they are physical embodiments of will, pinnacles of human possibility, the manifestation of destiny.

Anton: Ferguson is great. The way she kills guys by running up them and breaking them with her legs is so impressive. She seems like an unstoppable force, just like Ethan Hunt is. I just hope this blows up Ferguson. Let’s seen her helm her own action movie.

You’re also right, Aren, about the parallels between Hunt and Faust in the movie.

Aren: There’s also a romantic chemistry between the two but it’s not overemphasized. They don’t kiss in the end. It’d be pointless if they did. The consummation of their relationship is to kill bad guys together. If the film were a musical, they’d dance together. Since it’s an action film instead, they fight, occasionally each other, often bad guys, letting their impressive physical feats do the talking for them. It’s very sexy, but it’s not sexual, if you catch me.

Anton: Along similar lines, I feel like Rogue Nation is also moving in the right direction in terms of not overly sexualizing the action heroine. For years, Angelina Jolie was the only actress who could carry a successful action movie, but Tomb Raider and Wanted sold her as a super sexy badass heroine. Ferguson is attractive, and they certainly show off her legs in the scene when she has the sniper rifle, but I’d argue that that’s not primarily sexual. There’s an erotic aspect, certainly, but it’s also showing off her physique in the way the film has a shirtless Tom Cruise climbing a poll. Its a celebration of their bodies without being primarily sexual or erotic, and I think that is something relatively new for action heroines in Hollywood films. There’s no Scar-Jo tossing her hair moment (which always seem to remind us why Marvel has played up the character).

Anders: I agree that the film doesn’t treat Ferguson as a sex object, either in having a leering camera or in the way that the other characters treat her. A friend I saw the film with remarked that she was so glad that there was “nothing creepy” when Ilsa's facing male opponents, as is so often the case, no threats of sexual violence or things of that sort. As well, she’s allowed to be competent but still feminine, facing her male opponents and it never being remarked upon that she shouldn’t be able to do this. She doesn’t even get a female villain to face off against as is so often the case in these situations. Even the Bond films have occasionally fallen to that trope, as in the case of Halle Berry’s Jinx having her own female to fight in Rosamund Pike’s character in Die Another Day—though the less said about that nadir of the Bond franchise the better.

Also, just a comment. I do love that there is a scene in this film where a woman named Ilsa asks two men, “What brings you to Casablanca?” Ferguson, as a Swede, definitely brings a kind of Ingrid Bergman class to the proceedings, but also a Michelle Yeoh level of physical capability. Again, she should be a rising star.

Anton: Oh my goodness, you’re right! Her face also does recall Ingrid Bergman. Wow!

Aren: I feel like Ethan and Ilsa’s relationship is summarized by that pair of shots that appears late in the film, after Ethan has successfully called Solomon Lane’s bluff in the restaurant patio in London. After Solomon diffuses the bomb he strapped to Benji and Benji sulks off to safety, Ethan and Ilsa are left together surrounded by Solomon’s henchman. The shot cuts to an extreme close-up of Ethan looking at Ilsa, as if asking her for a dance, before cutting to Ilsa’s reaction shot, looking at Ethan and thinking the same thing. There’s a silent agreement between them. And when the camera returns to a wide angle, they start kicking ass.

Action as Art

Anton: It’s a great scene, but so is the motorbike chase, during which Ilsa is seen to be just as capable as Hunt.

Aren: That motorcycle chase through the winding mountain roads outside Casablanca is a hell of a scene. I can’t think of a chase scene in recent years as thrilling, unless you count the entirety of Mad Max: Fury Road, which is kind of one feature-length chase scene. After Jack Reacher, I knew that director Christopher McQuarrie was good with a good-old-fashioned car chase, filmed comprehensibly, with minimal shake and maximum volume, but I didn’t know just how good.

The motorcycle chase is just fantastic. Those bikes must be approaching 200 miles an hour and they’re banking really tight turns. McQuarrie keeps the camera relatively stable so you can really see how tight the turns are. I’m not sure how much of the scene is actually Tom Cruise on the bike and how much is a stuntman, but when you see Cruise leaning over during a turn, his knee only inches from the ground, as the bike is racing at unfathomable speeds, it’s thrilling. The extreme volume of the scene, with the blaring noise of the bike engines, gears shifting, revving, and the bullets flying, accelerates the impact. It’s phenomenal. It gives me hope that American movies are still capable of great action scenes.

Anders: Yes, and the beginning of the sequence in the car with Ethan and Benji barrelling through the streets of Casablanca generates a sense of fun as well. Then after they smash the car and Ethan gets out of the car and looks at the empty motorcycle you know it’s going to get kicked up a notch. But I wasn’t expecting it to be as wonderful as it was.

Anton: It’s the kind of scene I’m actually contemplating paying IMAX prices to see again on the big screen.

Aren: Also, that opening teaser with Ethan holding onto the plane during takeoff is a rush. It’s similar to a Bond pre-credits sequence. It barely connects to the main plot of the film and is more a throwaway stunt that excites the audience right off the bat. I find it admirable that the film’s conception of a throwaway stunt is to have Tom Cruise cling to an airbus with his bare hands as it takes off. In other films that’d be the big ticket draw, the climax, and here it happens before the opening credits.

Anton: The opening is a great pre-credits sequence, and it’s also very playful with the audience. First, we get that opening shot of grass. I loved it. This is supposed to be the most exciting action movie of the year, and they just tease us with a few seconds of lawn. And we wait for it to begin. Second, they don’t show Tom Cruise straightaway. Things are happening, and I was like, “Where’s Tom Cruise.” And then he comes in running. Of course, running.

Tom Cruise holding onto the plane featured heavily in all the advertising, so I always assumed it would be part of the climax. And then when we see it 10 minutes into the movie I was wondering what else they had in store.

It’s stuff like this that makes this film so good. A lot of people are already questioning the rave reviews, but you have to admire the craft of a film like this. An action movie doesn’t have to be serious to be great. Jackie Chan used to show us this, and now Tom Cruise is keeping it alive.

Mission: Impossible versus James Bond 007

Anton: Since we’ve been running the James Bond 007 Retrospective on the site and Bond is now always on my mind, I noticed some of the profound differences between Mission: Impossible and James Bond while watching Rogue Nation.

First of all, James Bond is a loner, whereas M:I is all about the team, especially this installment.

Aren: The necessity of each member of the team to save the day is a big focus here. Everyone does their part. Ethan Hunt may no longer have the personal life that was the main focus of M:I-III, but he’s not a loner. He’s one of a group of outsiders. I like the scene where Benji tells Ethan off for assuming he’s incapable of fieldwork. It felt like the franchise as a whole coming to terms with the appeal of its group dynamic, that Tom Cruise is the main reason you see this movie but that he’s even better when surrounded by a bunch of entertaining actors who support the character.

Bond has M, who gives him his assignment, Q, who supplies him with weapons and gadgets, and the Bond girls, who usually play into his confrontation with the villain, but he’s usually alone for the fight, dependent on his own skills to save the day. He doesn’t get to pal around with his team after the fight is over. In fact, the Bond films never argue that Bond needs to rely more on others. They never push for a stronger Bond that can rely on relationships to help him through his assignments. If anything, they show that Bond is necessarily alone, that his work is so difficult and taxing he is incapable of true intimacy or connection with others. The Mission: Impossible films, however, have embraced the need for a team dynamic. Ethan Hunt needs his IMF crew, even if he no longer needs his wife, apparently.

Anton: Yeah, I’m confused about that. Where’d she go. Didn’t we see her again at the end of Ghost Protocol?

Anders: Sort of. In Ghost Protocol it kind of frees Ethan Hunt from the whole idea of having a wife, while still having the happy ending. It’s explained that Ethan faked her death and his revenge against her killers to infiltrate the Russian prison. Basically, it allows him to return to being a lone wolf, without saddling him with a dead wife.

Aren: As well, there’s a difference in motivation here. Notice how the Bond films always boil down his motivation to nationalism and loyalty. At the end of the day, Bond does what he does because he believes in England, in the Queen, in protecting the Commonwealth and doing what his superiors tell him to. He may occasionally go rogue, but not like the IMF, which seems to constantly exist in a state of extralegal authority. Conversely, Ethan Hunt and his team cannot rely on superiors. Superiors are untrustworthy and have ulterior motives. Ethan Hunt doesn’t beat the bad guys because he believes in the United States or has a sense of loyalty to the current system of world order. He saves the day because no one else will and people will die if he doesn’t. He’s a true individualist in this regard, as his motivations are internal. He doesn’t rely on an external moral code or system to guide him.

I think a lot of this has to do with cultural differences between the United States and Great Britain. Ethan Hunt is very American. He exemplifies the American hero who can determine right and wrong on his own, and can save the day with a small, determined crew of like-minded individualists. Bond, on the other hand, is (obviously) very British. He saves the day, but he ultimately allows his superiors to determine the right and wrong in what he does. The Queen calls and he answers. He’s a loner, but he’s tethered to a greater system and code of honour.

Anton: If Ethan Hunt is the manifestation of destiny, as Baldwin waxes poetic in the film, perhaps Hunt and his team can also be read as embodiments of American exceptionalism. There’s this idea that the United States is a special, unique nation, and in recent years, with Iraq and other conflicts, it has been used to argue that the US doesn’t have to play by the same rules as other countries, since it’s up to them to keep the world safe. This might be a subtext in Rogue Nation. I don’t think it’s present in the earlier films either. I mean, the first is still dealing with the fallout of the Cold War. M:I-2 is almost entirely apolitical. But this one’s called Rogue Nation. I know Cruise calls the Syndicate a “rogue nation,” but in what sense is the film holding up the IMF, the Impossible Mission Force, as a kind of “rogue nation” that needs to operate on its own terms. The charges against the Syndicate are almost equally valid for the IMF. There’s truth to the Senate committee’s objections.

I don’t know, what do you think?

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015, USA)

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie; written by Christopher McQuarrie, based on a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce, based on the television series by Bruce Geller; starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, and Alec Baldwin.