Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Impossible Week, part V: Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny, and he has made you his mission!


Is this the end of the Impossible series?  $267 million and counting argues no: but the beginning of its end, it may well be.

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Written by Drew Pearce and Christopher McQuarrie
With Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Rebecca Ferguson (Ilsa Faust), Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Alec Baldwin (Alan Hunley)

Spoiler alert: mild

How to begin?  Should I start by saying that Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation is a perfectly fine piece of summer entertainment?  Or should I go straight to the teeth-gnashing, and tell you that it's a disappointment, maybe even a tiny bit of a betrayal?

I choose the teeth-gnashing, of course, because it accords with my generally unpleasant temperament, and also because it fits the format I've developed over the course of discussing Tom Cruise's uniquely director-driven series.  Let's talk Chris McQuarrie.

Of course, by that I mean "let's talk about Cruise some more," for he remains—now more than ever—this franchise's true demiurge.  By 2011, Cruise's public image had already taken a hundred lashes.  It was beginning to affect his box office command.  Then Ghost Protocol hit; and perhaps its blockbuster success put his mind at ease.  But flash forward four years, and between there and here lay little but costly underperformers.  Though Cruise hadn't done such interesting work since the turn of the century, money does talk.  And Cruise, sad people-pleaser that I'm afraid he is, accepted his new mission: he would do exactly what the world demanded of him, and return to the franchise that had served him so faithfully before.

But the man even more responsible for Ghost Protocol's palpable hit, Brad Bird, was engaged in his own passion project, the kids' totalitarian adventure Tomorrowland.  Further, Bird didn't want to come back anyway—correctly identifying what made the Impossible series so precious in the first place, Bird looked forward to what yet a fifth filmmaker could do with the series.

And now we can return to Rogue Nation's writer-director.  As that title makes clear, McQuarrie is a double-threat: on the one hand is the inexperienced director; but on the other is the screenwriter who played the devil's greatest trick on us in the very best of all those post-Tarantino neo-noirs, 1995's The Usual Suspects.  Naturally, it's the latter claim to fame that really gets the blood up.  We found ourselves waiting breathlessly—and, yes, naively—for McQuarrie to take the Impossible series back to its own mystery-thriller roots.

McQuarrie nevertheless was a rather compelling choice to direct, too, even if he had helmed but two films previously.  After all, those two films were The Way of the Gun, the millennium's swan song for stupid criminal cinema, and—a long twelve years later—the adaptation of Lee Child's novel One Shot, the hypermacho Jack Reacher.  Despite the distance between them, there's undeniably an aesthetic tying both films together: a certain laconic anti-style that complements their spare, pseudo-comic grittiness.  Presumably their collaboration on Reacher was what convinced Cruise to give McQuarrie his franchise in the first place; and I suppose with results like this past weekend's box office, you can't objectively call that a mistake, though frankly it seems kind of insane.

In point of fact, I didn't get to Reacher till after Rogue Nation, though I liked it rather more—I expect that if I had seen it first, I'd have been all the more disappointed.  Because between McQuarrie, screenwriter, and McQuarrie, director, I might've hoped that Rogue Nation could be the smaller, smarter Mission: Impossible—and not the wobbly exercise in overt bigness that the trailers conditioned us for half a year to actually expect.  Now that I have seen Reacher, I honestly cannot imagine what Cruise was thinking when he decided to ask the man who made that to copy the man who made Ghost Protocol.  And McQuarrie does everyone a disservice when he tries, because—unsurprisingly—he's not that hot at it.

Oh, there is still some McQuarrie in Rogue Nation.  Unfortunately, it's mostly the result of his inability to ride the learning curve Cruise put in front of him: there's a lack of flair in its giant Impossible setpieces, so often failing to provide that final kick; there's a plot that ultimately devolves into a muddle of motivation, while never once actually delivering on the paranoia it perpetually gropes for; and then there's the deeply fatigued connective tissue in the spaces in-between the action, threatening to turn Rogue Nation into a logey, aimless frankenstein.

Even so, the Impossible series becomes anonymous with Rogue Nation—and that's the last thing I'd ever thought I'd say about this franchise.  McQuarrie, aping Bird at Cruise's behest, has split the difference between Bird's animation-honed style and the Golden Age cinema upon which he so effortlessly riffed, and it's a confusing place to be.  While Ghost Protocol might've escaped the gravitational pull of its influences, Rogue Nation is never half that lucky.  The film's smattering of ineradicable Impossiblisms aside, McQuarrie's effort is exactly what the Impossible franchise never, ever should've become, but now has: mid-tier Bond.  Thus I have become dully resigned to the certain prospect that its success will simply engender more of the same; and so it has, I fear, destroyed my favorite ongoing film series.

The good news, though, is that mid-tier Bond isn't exactly bad, and neither is Rogue Nation.  With the bomb-throwing out of the way, I can focus on what McQuarrie does right.

And 1000 words deep seems is as good a time as any to recap the plot, don't you agree?

Ethan Hunt is on the trail of the fearsome Syndicate, the IMF's very shadow: a "rogue nation," Ethan calls it, that has absorbed agents from intelligence services all over the world, and is now on the move, leaving a chain of political assassinations and unsolved disasters in its wake.  What is their goal?  To change the world—and I hope you find that explanation satisfactory, because the movie does.

But the CIA doesn't believe that the Syndicate even exists, and thereby challenges the IMF to a bureaucratic turf war, launching a subplot that is probably the worst offender when it comes to Rogue Nation's wearying lack of pace.  The upshot, however, is that the IMF is completely dissolved, leaving Ethan—who has come face to face with the Syndicate's leader, Solomon Kane, and knows they will stop at nothing—with two options.  He can retire, and let the Syndicate win; or he can go rogue (again), and fight the Syndicate alone.  Ethan, you can imagine, is not about to let the Syndicate win.

But, relearning the same lesson that Ghost Protocol taught him, Ethan realizes he can't beat them on his own.  Ultimately, his team is reunited, less Jane Carter (a pity), but plus Luther Stickell (so it evens out).  And soon he has the help of a double (or is it triple? quadruple?) agent within the Syndicate itself, the improbably-named Ilsa Faust.  Together, they'll take down the Syndicate, or die trying, going from Vienna to Casablanca to London to put an end to the Syndicate's formlessly evil plans.

Acknowledging that there's nothing truly special about Rogue Nation, it would nonetheless be unfair of me not to mention its highlights: its unequivocally best scene, placed far too early in the film, is of course Ethan's attempt to prevent an assassination at a performance of Turandot.  (Ethan does not, technically, succeed at this task; but the manner in which he fails is quite wonderful indeed, the physical and aural space of the opera producing a heavenly thriller sequence that one-ups Hitchcock with ease.)  Likewise, a daunting underwater heist is another fine piece of filmmaking, worthy of Bird in its use of an imaginative mechanism to give Ethan endless trouble; unfortunately, it would only be worthy of Bird on his worst day, given that the target is so conceptually goofy (an underwater computer server?) that it's very difficult to forget its artificiality and enjoy it as pure cinema.  This is followed up with a much less inherently-interesting but a very well put-together motorcycle chase, as if to say, "Take that, John Woo!"  And Woo does not win in the comparison.  McQuarrie has never failed yet to deliver a respectable chase, and Rogue Nation is no exception to that rule.

But finally let's touch upon that heavily-pimped airplane sequence.  Rogue Nation's very first scene does indeed give us Tom Cruise, hanging on for dear life to the side of a real moving aircraft.  It's surely spectacular enough to open any movie—and yet it is exactly what I mean when I say McQuarrie doesn't really understand the process he's been asked to replicate.  Too unsophisticated in its conception, Cruise's airborne adventure ends with a literal thud.  The nearly-intolerable escalation of danger that so defined Ghost Protocol, we are made to understand, shall not define its sequel.

That said, Cruise himself never fails to elicit a response, and in a sense his airplane ride marks the most dangerous stunt of his career: say what you will about the Burj Khalifa or that rock out in Utah—those fuckers weren't going to crash on takeoff.

Ethan's deuteragonist, Faust, unfortunately fails to impress.  Rebecca Ferguson is a step ahead of serviceable in the role, let's be clear; but she has little of the physicality it requires.  That she's actually been roundly praised for the action content of her performance is honestly confusing to me, given how obviously the editing has to work around her limitations in every fight scene she's involved in—and I'm terribly certain that undercranked fast-motion rears its ugly head, too, the better to make her stunt partner's complete cooperation look like a facsimile of resistance.

It's all something that might've gone unnoticed, if it weren't in such bracing contrast with Cruise's own ever-ambitious stuntwork.  Now, Ferguson's never inept.  There's plainly a great deal of training she's undergone—reportedly the only reason Paula Patton didn't reprise her role as Jane Carter was that she wasn't about to derail her career to take six months of knife-fighting classes.  But in a truly ideal world, Cruise would've tapped someone like Zoe Bell—that is, someone as familiar with physical work as he is—to take on the female lead.  Unfortunately, in this world, we evidently needed a former Swedish model to headline a production of this magnitude.  And McQuarrie himself seems to be of two minds on the issue—his camera absolutely drools over Ferguson, while the arch-chaste script itself barely manages to establish a platonic friendship between the two super-spies.  Well, at least that classy trailer shot of her bikini-clad ass emerging from the water never made it into the final cut; at least Faust takes off her fucking heels in combat.  But truly, make up your mind, Rogue Nation!  If you're going to go Bond, and you have surely committed to that, why not go all the way?

Yet Rogue Nation ends in the register that, perhaps, it always should have been in—with cleverness, and quietude.  In its climax, you can see McQuarrie the suspense-writer and twist-maker coming alive, and it is the first time that a truly sustained pleasure seeps into the film.  (Solomon Kane may be a hackneyed villain, not on the level of a Phelps, or even a Cobalt or Davian, but Sean Harris does more with look than any of them, and he's ultimately quite satanically effective.)

Rogue Nation, I should repeat, is good—maybe even "very good"—but it is devoid of so much of the personality that has always animated even the worst Mission: Impossible film since the franchise's inception almost twenty years ago.  Thus, while it may have been written and directed by Chris McQuarrie, it isn't much of a Chris McQuarrie film.  Meanwhile, Tom Cruise himself, though as spry as ever, seems to have lost his own crucial bit of nerve.  This time, he's made a movie for you, not for him.  And therefore, he has not made much of a movie for me, either.  That's a shame, and walking out, though liking Rogue Nation, I still felt a little sad.

And yet, I'll probably buy it anyway.  I do own Mission: Impossible 2, for Christ's sake.

Score:  7/10

Other reviews in this series:
Mission: Impossible
Mission: Impossible 2
Mission: Impossible 3
Mission: ImpossibleGhost Protocol

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