Tom Cruise brings the fun and Chris McQuarrie brings the Hitchcock in the latest thrilling if predictable Impossible adventure.
All the blockbusters nowadays seem to be either heavily inspired by, or directly referencing, films from the golden age of Hollywood. Kingsman: The Secret Service and Spy wore their Bond influence on their sleeve, The Man from U.N.C.L.E– a reboot of 60s property- hits in the coming weeks and Guardians of the Galaxy was a strange hybrid homage to Star Wars and Dirty Dancing. In a world where mediocre cinema (we don’t mean Star Wars, for the record) gets reaffirmed by contemporary Hollywood properties, it’s a treat to see a film such as Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (with that very specific punctuation) allude so heavily to Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock, in my lifelong opinion, is the greatest American filmmaker of all time, and it’s always pleasing to see today’s more intelligent directors (Chris McQuarrie, despite his directorial faults, possessed a wealth of cinematic knowledge) use Hitchcockian motifs.
Rogue Nation is reminiscent of The Man Who Knew Too Much in its use of the concert hall as venue for action, North by Northwest in its man-on-the-run conspiracy-fuelled plot and The 39 Steps in its London-set last act, which avails of cobbled streets and misty riverside to gorgeous effect. This is all hugely enjoyable as a cinema fan, but for mainstream- particularly young- audiences, this string of references most likely won’t register. McQuarrie is too aware of who he’s pleasing, and doesn’t do enough work to create something as new and fresh as Brian De Palma, JJ Abrams and Brad Bird did with the first, third and fourth Mission movies (we won’t mention John Woo’s second instalment).
Bird’s 2011 masterpiece Ghost Protocol was a thrilling, magical action movie with brilliance and creativity in buckets and a pace so fast it sent the head spinning. Rogue Nation, on the other hand, is extremely slow in parts. It’s structured around three central set-pieces: Cruise Hangs Off Plane (which, surprisingly, opens the film and has no real relevance to the plot), Cruise Dives Into Water Tank and Motorbike Chase. These three sequences are spectacular. While not to Ghost Protocol‘s standard, they are extraordinary fun. They’re also shown almost entirely in the trailers. What happens in between in well-directed by McQuarrie, a fan of shadows on screen and crunches on soundtrack.
Tom Cruise, continuing a run of strong action films following 2014’s wonderful Edge of Tomorrow, reunites with the delightful Simon Pegg and the underused-but-likeable Jeremy Renner, while relative newcomer Rebecca Ferguson does a spin on the one-use-Mission-female role. She’s surprisingly good, a new British heroine in the vein of recent Cruise co-stars Emily Blunt and Rosamund Pike who has genuine chemistry with the screen-dominating star. Cruise’s enthusiasm for his work continues to be visible and admirable. Hollywood should appreciate him a bit more. Sean Harris is just about memorable in the one-use-terrorist-villain role, and Alec Baldwin does his best with a one-dimensional supporting part that really could’ve been played by anyone at all.
The last half-hour, the film’s most surprising act by far (in other words, the act least shown in the trailers) is brisk and witty and thoroughly engaging. Tom Hollander shows up as the best movie Prime Minister of the month (beating Fiona Shaw’s horrific performance in Pixels by a kilometre) and Renner gets something to do. His presence is representative of McQuarrie’s whole problem making a Mission movie. He wants to do something amazing, crazy, out-of-the-box, but is restrained by franchise regulation and a formula that must- to a certain extent- be followed (Renner’s contractual obligation to appear included). With Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird expanded the box. With Tomorrowland, the box broke and he made a mess. Maybe things are better safe inside the box. Rogue Nation is just a little too safe to be adventurous, and to be great.