It’s hard to believe that the Mission: Impossible film franchise has been going for nearly 20 years now. Few series have that sort of longevity these days. And it’s not as though it has the billion dollar blockbuster appeal of the likes of James Bond, Star Trek, Star Wars, Transformers or the never-ending Marvel Cinematic Universe. Instead the Impossible Missions Force quietly just gets on with it, surfacing every few years to deliver another status report before going dark again.
The first film in 1996 was the typical “let’s revive a much loved television show for an updated modern theatrical release” which was all the rage both then and indeed still today. A quite cold espionage thriller directed with trademark icy precision by Brian De Palma, the film alienated many with its treatment of one of the TV series’ most beloved characters. It took four years for a sequel, and when the second film appeared in 2000 it was a completely different beast, a manically over the top action film directed by the inimitable John Woo. The two entries were as different as ice and fire and only the iconic theme music and burning fuse credits together with the return of Tom Cruise in the starring role of IMF agent Ethan Hunt seemed to even hint that it was part of the same series at all.
Other than being a star vehicle for Tom Cruise performing many of his own eye-watering stunts, the series didn’t really seem to have much of a purpose and had long since lost touch with the TV show’s premise of intricate heists and deceptions undertaken by a team each with their own unique talents, compared with the one-man-does-it-all Ethan Hunt. When there was no sign of a third film for six years it appeared that the franchise had come to a natural end.
When the third film did arrive, it was helmed by JJ Abrams. As he would later go on to show to great acclaim with Star Trek and now Star Wars, Abrams is a director who knows how to reinvent a venerable property for the 21st century while respecting the foundations and traditions that made it successful in the first place. Mission: Impossible III was his first test run at undertaking such renovation projects and it was no doubt valuable experience for what he went on to do later: to my mind he wasn’t entirely successful in the case of the Mission: Impossible series and his entry in the canon remains a slightly underwhelming ‘meh’, too toned down and lacking the directorial distinctiveness of de Palma and Woo to really make a huge impression on me at the time. However, it would subsequently be shown to have laid down some crucial foundations for what was to follow.
Abrams didn’t return to the director’s chair, but his production company Bad Robot took over the running of the franchise and built upon what he had put in place. Brad Bird was chosen to direct the fourth film in 2011 subtitled Ghost Protocol and now Christopher McQuarrie has been tapped to write and direct the fifth instalment called Rogue Nation. And as far as I’m concerned, the series has achieved that rare cinematic feat of getting better with each passing entry rather than declining to mediocrity: While I liked Ghost Protocol a lot (it’s one of the few films with a high rewatch value in my home) it was at least one entire sequence too long and the ending a bit underwhelming; but with Rogue Nation the series finally hits all its marks perfectly to give arguably the most entertaining and satisfying film of the lot.
What’s given the series its core backbone is the gradual emergence of a proper team over recent films. That was what the TV series was originally all about, but the first movie had wiped out Hunt’s original team and the second foregrounded Hunt (Cruise) as solo action hero with only minimal assistance. By the third film, the only stalwart of the series left among an ever-changing supporting cast was Ving Rahmes as Luther Stickell: however, it did introduce British comedy star Simon Pegg in a one-scene cameo as comedy computer geek Benji – although I’ve always wondered if the director really intended to cast Kevin Weisman for the role, as he had played an almost identical character in Abram’s breakthrough TV series success Alias.
Although Abrams took Pegg with him when he decamped to the Star Trek franchise (where he plays Scotty and is a co-writer of the latest film), Pegg was an instant success in the world of the IMF and duly recalled to duty for Ghost Protocol where he was even upgraded to full ensemble membership status as part of the field team, while Jeremy Renner was added to the line-up as analyst William Brandt along with Paula Patton as Jane Carter. For the first time it really started to feel that Hunt was no longer flying solo with occasional support but genuinely part of the team, and that Cruise was now happy to share the limelight equally with the rest of the group.
Pegg gets a further update in Rogue Nation: with the characters of Brant and Hawkins working from the sidelines for half of the film it’s Benji who becomes Hunt’s main sidekick for much of the action, and the elevated levels of comedy that ensue are a treat while never undermining the film’s credibility as a proper spy and action thriller. By the time the full team is reunited in Morocco there’s a real sense of emotional fulfilment that the series has never had before. It might have come the long way around, but at long last the cinematic IMF has finally achieved something of the true spirit of its classic television incarnation.
There had still been a slight problem with the female side of the casting, where it appears that no actress is allowed to appear more than once in the series and that Hunt must have a different potential romantic interest on each outing. In the first film it was Emmanuelle Béart as Claire Phelps, and in the second Hunt was tasked with forming and exploiting a relationship with Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton) to get at crack international terrorist Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott). Abrams brought in Michelle Monaghan as Julia Meade in the third film and she returned in a brief cameo in Ghost Protocol, but her full place in the main story was taken by Paula Patton.
Rogue Nation appears to continue the revolving door policy when it comes to the lead actresses, with neither Patton nor Monaghan recalled to duty. Instead we get Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson (perhaps best known internationally from her starring role in the BBC’s The White Queen) as British intelligence officer Ilsa Faust. However in this case, not only is Ferguson impressively good in her own right, she’s also given a key role within the story and on top of that she’s clearly positioned as being every bit as good as Hunt himself in the action stakes as well. Towards the end of the film she’s in peril and you’re expecting one of the male co-stars to arrive and save the day: but no, she gets out of it all by herself and eliminates the threat without any help at all. In fact it’s she who unequivocally ends up saving Hunt’s life midway through the film. Can you imagine such a level of absolute parity being bestowed upon a so-called Bond Girl? For all the fuss made about the frankly unremarkable character of Dr Madeline Swann in Spectre, Ferguson’s part in Rogue Nation shows just how equality can and should be done in a genre film of this type and illustrates how very far the Bond franchise still has to come in that regard.
Having raised the matter of Bond, it’s hard not to compare the two long-running spy franchises. Other film makers over the years have tried hard to dethrone James Bond and come up with their own espionage money-making machines. Some have been close, some arguably at least as good as films – the excellent Bourne franchise certainly had a huge impact on Bond and made the 007 reboot itself in a similar image – but no one other than Eon Productions has actually been able to make a film that feels like a proper Bond.
Until now. Because more than anything else, what Rogue Nation feels like is that is has succeeded in becoming the first non-Bond film to capture the same essence of the 007 franchise. One of the earliest sequences has Hunt in full evening wear prowling around the backstage of the Vienna Opera House trying to thwart an assassination, and you could easily see James Bond carrying out exactly the same operation in precisely the same way (there’s also quite a hint of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much going on here, too.)
The parallels actually get stronger. The team ends up in Morocco and then decamps back London. Hunt is trying to track down a shadowy terrorist superorganisation known as the Syndicate which is revealed as being behind many of the threats faced by Hunt and the IMF in previous films – a rare attempt to make the standalone entries in the franchise into something more coherent and connected. The Syndicate is led by the mysterious Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) who is quietly and intelligently spoken, and chillingly evil. As the film approaches its climax it foregoes the normal big budget, loud, all-guns-blazing crescendo and filters down to a tense, edge-of-the-seat confrontation and finally a foot chase through the streets of London that leaves the two protagonists bleeding and wounded as things get very personal. If you’re thinking this sounds familiar, it’s because the Syndicate is so very similar to Spectre with Lane making a very good Oberhauser. (For the record, Rogue Nation came out first; and in any case the production times mean that neither film could have knowingly copied from the other, so don’t even think about going down that road.)
In any case it’s a great piece of writing by McQuarrie, whose professional breakthrough was writing the phenomenal screenplay for The Usual Suspects in 1995 and who first paired up with Cruise when he wrote Valkyrie in 2008. McQuarrie first tried his hand at directing with The Way of the Gun in 2000 but didn’t take up the director’s chair again until he reteamed with Cruise for 2012’s Jack Reacher. He’s not known as being particularly experienced or outstanding at directing, but Cruise clearly liked him enough to call him up and take charge of Rogue Nation. Some have claimed that the film’s visual look is rather flat and ordinary and it’s true that McQuarrie is not anything like the visual auteur that de Palma, Woo, Abrams and even Bird have proven to be over the years, but he gives a solid and precise look to the film which shies away from being distracting and allows the film’s stars, action sequences and story to take centre stage instead. For my money, he’s perhaps the perfect director for this type of material and overall the film shines in the way that Skyfall did, but that somehow Spectre lacked by comparison with a notably less appealing appearance in the absence of superlative director of cinematographer Roger Deakins.
In fact in many ways I think that Rogue Nation was the best Bond film I saw in 2015: yes, even better and more satisfying than Spectre although I liked that perfectly well enough as well. It’s the first time in history that I recall where I feel that Eon have been outplayed on their own turf.
With the series getting better and stronger with each instalment, I’m now at the point where I’m genuinely excited about the next entry being released. Whereas four years has been the average gap between Mission: Impossible films in the past, this time it appears that production for the sixth entry might begin as early as this year (2016). Best news of all is that not only is McQuarrie returning for a second outing, but that Ferguson will be back as Ilsa Faust. Assuming that it’s not a short cameo à la Monaghan it’ll be the first time that a female lead of the series carries over, and confirms her place as an equal member of the team alongside Hunt – which really should give the Bond franchise something to mull over.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★