[Review] - Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Confession time: with the exception of the first film, I hadn't seen any of the Mission: Impossible movies until a week ago. The only reason I'd seen the first one was that TBS used to play it on a loop, and the only thing I can clearly remember about it is that Emilio Estevez gets squished about five minutes in, and for some reason, he was the draw to the film in my mind (I know, the nineties were a weird time). But, I had the opportunity to see Rogue Nation in a double bill with The Man From U.N.C.L.E, and I'm not one to turn down a film, so I set about equating myself with the franchise, so that I had a fuller picture in my mind of what I should and should not be expecting.

Did you read my review of The Man From U.N.C.L.E? Because Rogue Nation is pretty much the exact opposite of it in every way, and certification that The Man From U.N.C.L.E would not have been a fraction as successful with Cruise playing Solo. Rogue Nation, and the M:I franchise in general, is a as general an action series as you can get (I haven't seen any of them, but I'm assuming that the Fast and the Furious series beats it out in nondescriptiveness). Nothing here stands out in any way. These are the sorts of films that have such established beats, much mundane acts of amazement, and such little interest in accomplishing anything, that I found myself bored while watching them. They are professionally made movies, to be sure. They are high gloss. But they are the cinematic equivalent of laminating tissue paper. Without the shining covering, there isn't much there.

Hit the jump for the review, which commits the tiny sin of also being a review of the franchise at large. And contains spoilers, should you choose to accept them.

The Mission franchise is one that, in retrospect, as three glaring problems, and considering that this is the fifth, neither Tom Cruise, nor Bad Robot, seem interested in fixing. So, all credit for anything original must fall to the feet of the director and writers of that particular installment (little wonder then why Mission: Impossible III behaves like a cold turd in a hot tub, considering it's pedigree). These three problems are, in decreasing order of severity, thus: women, villains, and Mr. Cruise.

This franchise has a woman problem. It has an insulting, astounding problem with it's female characters, and the microcosm they occupy in the larger picture of the franchise. And this wouldn't be that noticeable or glaring if Ethan Hunt undertook each successive mission with an entirely new team. But the Mission movies are like snowballs: they gather as they role, and each movie has brought back in a larger or more significant role, a character form the previous installment. This culminates in Rogue Nation being over stuffed with return visits from Jeremey Renner, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg (Pegg being the only one who adds anything substantive to the plot, the only one who acts like he's trying with the role, and the only one who looks like he's enjoying himself). We're five movies in, and we've got a team of nearly that many returning operatives (M:I 2 being the ginger step child of the franchise and the only one not to loan anyone forward).

But none of the women are recurring. The women are the expendable team members. The female stars all survive their films, but fail to reappear or warrant even a mention (there is a single exception to this, in Michlle Monaghan, which I'll get to). The result is that each film's director and writers have to create an entirely new female character to populate this bro's club, which at this point must be a thankless task, considering that there is every reasons to expect the character will never be seen again. The entire joy and appeal of Rogue Nation lies in the performance of Rebecca Ferguson, and the great story she is given, and you have to applaud Christopher McQuarrie for giving enough of a damn to create her. She could carry her own film, and probably should have, that way escaping having to be saddled with Hunt and the mediocre baggage of this franchise.

But if it had been I taking this job, and looking at what had come before it, I doubt I'd have been quite so zealous to create such an engaging and deep character, knowing that Maggie Q and Paula Patton were given their pink slips (for all the entirely appropriate positive reaction to Ferguson's Faust, I felt that Patton's Carter was equally engaging and capable, and thus dismayed by her utter absence). The exception to all of this is Monaghan, who thanklessly played the wife and the damsel, only to get thrown under the bus in the next picture. Not for the sake of character development, because that is a greater issue, but because of convenience and contrivance. Now we sit, post Rogue, and Cruise has already confirmed a sixth entry will be forth coming, and based on the past, we have to assume that Ferguson will have no part in it. It will also be safe to assume that the boy's club with barrel merrily along, and likely add Alec Baldwin to it's returning roaster. Though to be fair, the films also have a habit of wasting amazing talent (Laurence Fishburne stands out as egregious) in authority roles, again to leave them desolate between films.

The second problem the franchises have are villains. None of these villains stand out or are definable in anyway. They are walking plot devices rather than characters, though that is hardly surprising considering that this franchise doesn't give two rotten plums and a pickle about character development. Philip Seymour Hoffman stands out only because of his performance, imbuing his baddie with personality, but that doesn't hide the fact that he has nothing to do, and is barely in the film. And despite having only just seen it, I couldn't tell you a single thing about Ghost Protocol's villain, or even if there was one (I assume there was, otherwise, what would Tom Cruise have been jumping and running away and towards, other than an increasingly complex series of time trials, all meant to unlock the castle gates at the end of the level).

Rogue Nation's villain is the most defined of any the franchise has had, which is kind of like saying that I Can't Believe It's Not Butter is the most butter-like butter substitute: we're still talking about a bland moisturizing spread. And it was certainly more than I was expecting from McQuarrie, given Jack Reacher's hole in the bottom on the plot bucket antagonist. But that he makes an impact in the moment, and that his ploy holds together more than most is not the same as having a villain who is memorable. Who makes an impact in the long run. Who you can empathize with or who you can at least understand their perspective. In that regard, Rogue Nation's villain is no better than any of the other film's attempts, because he still lacks any impact. I can't even remember his name (which, if you are familiar with my reviews, in one of my warning flags that the film had an engagement problem).

The third problem is Cruise. He's one of those actors whose star has risen to the point where he doesn't need to act to play a role. People go in expecting him to play pretty much himself, and that is all he does. His roles in Edge of Tomorrow, the Mission films, Knight and Day, etc. are all interchangeable and indistinguishable. Jack Reacher and Tropic Thunder are recent exceptions, because it was required of him to actually provide something different. Otherwise, those roles would have been failures. Mission movies have survive on his generality because they demand no finesse of the character. There is a running joke in Rogue Nation of Hunt being bemused by everyone around him thinking he's capable of superhuman feats. This is meant to come off as humility, but it comes off as weirdly obtuse when you open the film with him hanging onto the outside of a plane.

But Hunt, nor any character, advances. There are small steps, that occur between films, that suggest that they learn from prior mistakes, but these are momentary realizations, and the characters revert as soon as the writers start describing an explosion. And this failure can be leveled at Cruise. As he is very found of pointing out, the Mission films were the first he produced. These are his children. He has the final say. And he has become far less focused on what makes them worth while as films, and more concerned with what far off part of the world he can travel to and what big ass stunt he can accomplish. And it says everything when the things that define your franchise aren't the characters, but the stunt you pull off in each, then what you have isn't a series of films, it's a brochure for extreme travel adventures.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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