Like the preceding Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation delivers exhilarating action in spades, and as such it’s probably the most entertaining live action blockbuster of the summer so far (you wait months for one intense set piece and three come along at the same time, etc.). The franchise has achieved a degree of stability, with three actors returning from previous episodes to join Tom Cruise for round five (Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner), and as you’d expect the magic, money-spinning formula has been strictly adhered to. Most of the elements that people seemed to like in Ghost Protocol can also be found in Rogue Nation, and all-told it works very well as an non-challenging action thriller, even if the nagging sense of déjà vu refuses to go away.
Disbelief must, once again, be suspended throughout. As per usual Cruise’s super-agent Ethan Hunt is discredited and disowned by his country, and must avoid his new CIA paymasters while battling shadowy terrorist organisation The Syndicate in a number of locations around the world: Minsk, London, Havana, Paris, Washington, DC, Langley, Casablanca and Vienna are all visited within an hour, sometimes just for a couple of seconds (‘Hey, it’s the Eiffel T…’), and Hunt’s team seemingly have identities and gadgets stashed in every city. Somewhat laughably we’re told that The Syndicate are behind everything, from plane crashes to power plant explosions to (I can only presume) any comedic slips on banana skins that occur, and their goal is to cause global instability. How they are actually managing to do this and how they intend to profit from it in the long run is never clearly explained, but we do discover that The Syndicate started out as a secret MI6 project and – like all the best evil organisations – it can ultimately be boiled down to one slightly creepy head honcho (Sean Harris) and his stupidly-named right-hand-man (‘The Bone Doctor’, with a performance straight out of The Big Book Of Musclebound Bad Guys by Jens Hultén). If this Multiplex Terrorism wasn’t silly enough in itself Rogue Nation viewers must also accept that someone who has reached the position of second-in-command at Syndicate Towers cannot actually hit Hunt while using a machine gun in a corridor that’s no more than four feet wide, that people who are shot in the back of the head from point-blank range do not bleed, and that people who jump through two window panes in the space of ten seconds can emerge without a scratch or a hair out of place. And that’s before we even get on to the big set pieces.
Few would look to the action thriller (or, more accurately, the spy action thriller) for their daily reality check, however, and if you sit back and go with it the running/shooting/fighting/jumping/swimming/driving tableaux provided are very entertaining; in fact three of the set pieces here give the famous Burj Khalifa and Langley scenes of earlier Mission: Impossible installments a good run for their money. Cruise hanging off the side of a plane is an obvious early highlight, while I also enjoyed the twenty minutes spent at the Vienna State Opera House, director Christopher McQuarrie channeling Hitchcock and, rather pleasingly, De Palma (indeed the production design, lighting and photography here often references the look of the original Mission: Impossible film, particularly the scenes set in Vienna and London, though McQuarrie’s film sadly only pays lip service to the series’ connective tissue of deception and false identity). There’s also a fine extended sequence involving a tense break-in to a water-filled chamber, while the car and motorbike chase that ensues through narrow streets and winding mountain roads is acted impeccably (by the principal cast members involved and the stunt crew). Cruise powers through all of this in an impressive, committed fashion, mostly joined by Simon Pegg’s tech wizz Benji rather than Renner’s agent Brandt, who has to settle for Congressional hearings and frantic phone conversations in corridors for much of the film.
The performance by Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, who plays a duplicitous British agent named Ilsa Faust, has been praised in some quarters. Faust injects some much-needed mystery into the film and is a character that regularly kicks ass (or rather ‘thighclamps head’, given that’s what she does to most of her male adversaries), but McQuarrie makes a number of troubling decisions with regard to the way she is portrayed, and it’s worth pointing out that she is the only woman in an all-male ensemble. There’s no doubt that Ferguson is excessively sexualised here, male-gazed by a camera that pans up and down her legs in a seedy fashion on a number of occasions, and there’s even the kind of antiquated exiting-water-in-a-bikini shot that the Bond franchise flipped and subsequently dispensed with a decade ago to herald the modern Daniel Craig era. Some may argue that Cruise gets similar treatment, and indeed he is predictably topless within the first twenty minutes, but it’s a very different kind of objectification and it’s one that typically shows how male and female characters are treated disparately in action movies. In Rogue Nation Ferguson is objectified to make her more sexually attractive and this is primarily done because it entertains the majority of watching (straight) men, hence the grubby nature of the camerawork, the ‘bikini scene’ and the repeated clamping of thighs round male heads before they are thrown to the floor (a submissive male fantasy if ever there was one, and a character trait that has been written by a man). Cruise is also objectified by his shirtless minute or two, but the intention feels different: in his case it’s to make the character look stronger, to establish his heroic credentials; of course it will also please anyone watching who happens to fancy Tom Cruise, but I don’t think that’s the writer-director in question’s main concern. (In the largely forgettable Jack Reacher – McQuarrie’s previous film as director – there was a half-decent gag about Cruise being shirtless, but such wit is missing here.)
It’s hardly original to point out that it’s rare for the men who make big budget Hollywood action films to introduce strong female characters and then simply allow them to be strong without any other agenda. In this particular film the character of Faust may be tough but apparently that’s not enough on its own: she must also be Hunt’s love interest and is duly filmed – rather clumsily, it must be said, but not always – in a way that reduces her to eye candy. Still, she isn’t defined wholly by her looks and it’s worth pointing out that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation doesn’t end with Faust and Hunt in bed together, even though their relationship often appears to be heading that way. Ultimately including female characters in action films who are the intellectual and physical equals of their male counterparts is a start, but it’s only a start: while directors like McQuarrie leer over their legs (or while studio executives keep telling them they must include that kind of thing) there’s a long way still to go. And all of this on the back of the unfortunate way Ferguson was depicted on the movie’s posters, too.
Less importantly, once again artistic licence is taken with the geography of London: you can’t run from the Tower of London to the Royal Courts of Justice on Fleet Street in five seconds flat, and unfortunately it annoys me when films do this kind of thing, even if most people won’t notice or care (though presumably residents of Vienna and Casablanca who watch the film will notice similar discrepancies). It’s sloppy, and I can’t imagine a similar trick would be pulled if, say, New York City or Los Angeles were the location in question. I also wish we could move on from bomb props that have big LED screens showing a countdown to zero or that flash the word “DISARMED!” in red letters when they are disarmed. Presumably this kind of thing is left in for the sake of dimwits who, with regard to the scene in question, need an explanation as to why Simon Pegg is still making chirrup-y quips seconds after it looked like his organs were about to be splattered across the screen. But let’s end on a positive note, because overall this is a decent action blockbuster in a year of disappointing event movies: Joe Kraemer’s score is pleasant enough, and the now-familiar trick of working short-and-long-term nostalgia-inducing pieces (in this case Nessun Dorma, which features heavily in the Vienna sequence, and Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible theme) into the soundtrack is executed with aplomb (see also Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys, etc.). I guess interpolation is par for the course when a franchise is twenty years old, and not just in terms of the music, so it’s worth pointing out how unusual it is to have this much fun when you’re five films in.
Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie.
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie. Story by Christopher McQuarrie and Drew Pearce. Based on Mission: Impossible by Bruce Geller
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin, Sean Harris.
Cinematography: Robert Elswit.
Editing: Eddie Hamilton.
Music: Joe Kraemer.
Running Time: 131 minutes.