Christopher McQuarrie stepped into the director’s chair for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – and it marked a turning point again in the series.
Spoilers for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and Spectre lie ahead.
If Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation confirms anything, it’s that the Tom Cruise-fronted franchise has spent almost two decades trying to work its way back to Brian De Palma and to the roots of where the series began.
In some of my previous pieces on the earlier films in the Mission Impossible franchise, one fact that remains true is how the series consistently reinvents itself every few years in order to stay vibrant and relevant, but oddly enough Rogue Nation on reflection is not as bold a reinvention after 2011’s Ghost Protocol as you might remember. There is greater filmmaking skill involved, with Christopher McQuarrie imbuing more heft into his set pieces than Brad Bird managed in the previous film, while McQuarrie’s script (revised after efforts by Will Staples and before that Drew Pearce, with whom he shares a story credit) certainly has more depth to the storytelling. Beyond that, there is a consistency framing itself between this and Ghost Protocol, one which carries through into the next film, Fallout.
Rogue Nation is consistent in how it stylistically reaches back to the first film in the franchise while further mythologising Cruise and his character Ethan Hunt.
Back in Mission Impossible II, a film made in a very different age of action cinema, Ethan was mythologised as the template for a modern, American hero archetype, framed by super-heroic abilities and a humourless cool. After the temporary humanising and grounding of Ethan in Mission Impossible III, Ghost Protocol then worked to both isolate Ethan as a character once again, imbuing him with the same level of calculated distance De Palma gave him in the first picture, while also reconstructing him back into a superhuman spy with limitless abilities. He would also operate as a man alone, despite the presence of a nascent IMF team around him. GP thought it was grungier and darker than it ended up being, even thanks to McQuarrie’s uncredited rewrite of the script.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, with the franchise now fully in McQuarrie’s hands, feels like a natural evolution from Ghost Protocol. It explores the idea that Ethan is a superhero, a man who can operate three steps ahead of governments and agencies, and that he is never truly meant to work as part of a team. When you consider the Mission Impossible franchise as a whole, the deconstruction of the original 1960s TV series concept by De Palma has never really left the series.
Whether facing the duality of his dark side in Sean Ambrose, or saving wife Julia from Owen Davian, or getting himself locked in a Russian prison to later help fake her death in Ghost Protocol, Ethan has consistently removed himself from a team ethic. He always needs people around him, like Benji or Luther, to help him execute his impossible missions, but he is pathologically unable to grow into a version of Peter Graves’ Jim Phelps from the original series – the rock solid team leader, who De Palma exposed as an idealistic representation of Cold War security in the first movie.
What McQuarrie does, and he is the first creative really to analyse this, is explore Ethan’s obsession with working to his own set of rules and take them to their logical conclusion. To whit – Ethan is finally classified as an enemy of the state.
This really shouldn’t be a surprise. Alec Baldwin’s CIA Director Hunley even references the events of De Palma’s film right out the gate, mentioning the set piece break in of Langley to recover the NOC list, as part of the litany of times Ethan has broken the rules and gone rogue or solo from IMF in order to save the day, save the world or save the girl. Though in MI2 he barely seems affiliated with the IMF, in MI3 he breaks out of IMF custody and in Ghost Protocol, his actions in Russia trying to stop terrorist fanatic Kurt Hendricks directly lead to the disavowal of the entire IMF. Ethan is a one man disaster area for the IMF.
Oddly however, given this, Rogue Nation is the first film in the franchise to really try and put all of this, and the operational position of the IMF, into any kind of context. In another universe, Henry Czerny would have returned as Kittridge (as he will in Dead Reckoning) from De Palma’s original playing the role Alec Baldwin essays here, as they are by all accounts the exact same character; the internal antagonist trying to protect the sanctity and security of the United States while considering Ethan a law unto himself or even a traitor. Hunley isn’t as devious a character as Kittridge, but he serves an identical function in that he represents not just a challenge to Ethan from within, but here a challenge to the entire IMF. As far as Hunley is concerned, Ethan is the IMF as much as Cruise is Mission Impossible. It’s a logical parallel to draw.
This also taps into a recurring narrative which keeps appearing in modern espionage movies – questioning whether the institutions our heroes are working for should still exist.
The Jason Bourne franchise is entirely about the corruption of internal government agencies and how one man is considered a threat to national security, a man in fact attempting to root out and destroy the dark conspirators within, but Mission Impossible is nowhere near as gloomy a franchise. While Rogue Nation is not quite as colourful and seductive as a James Bond movie, it comes closer to aping that equally long running spy franchise than any of the previous films, even Ghost Protocol. Brad Bird wanted to make a Bond movie but struggled. Christopher McQuarrie almost seems to be making one by accident.
Previously: Revisiting Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible
Previously: Revisiting John Woo’s Mission Impossible II
Previously: Revisiting J.J. Abrams’ Mission Impossible III
Previously: Revisiting Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
You wonder if McQuarrie took a cue from Skyfall, the 50th anniversary, box office record breaking Daniel Craig 007 movie from 2012, which paralleled the exploration of Bond as a character growing older and his relevance in the modern world with forcing Judi Dench’s M to stand up for the veracity and existence of the 00 section itself.
While the IMF has always been, by definition, much more of a team-based espionage unit than the lone wolves of the British 00 section, they share a similar place in the DNA of retro spy movies updated for modern audiences. They are hyper-real, not existing in the framework of actual intelligence work, but they have come to define espionage in both British cinema and American television since the 60s, iconic as they are. Skyfall, and Spectre after it, suggested the 00 section was a relic and Rogue Nation, through Hunley, suggests very similar about the IMF – rather that it is lawless and dangerous, thanks to Ethan, to the very institutions it claims to protect.
Could it be that in questioning whether the IMF, or the 00 section, should exist in a less defined, post-Cold War landscape, that these long-standing franchises are questioning whether they too have a place in the modern cinematic world? If De Palma wanted to deconstruct the 1960s in the first movie, is McQuarrie here trying to deconstruct the Mission Impossible film series itself?
Bond certainly underwent this level of introspection during the Craig-era, but Rogue Nation is the first time Mission Impossible asks this question, and you wonder why it took the franchise so long. Perhaps because, unlike Bond, it only came back 20 plus years ago and has not been a fixture for half a century; only now is Tom Cruise starting to bed into his middle-age, with Ethan visibly looking much older than he did in 1996 (though Cruise remains remarkably agile and daring for his years), so perhaps McQuarrie is aware that if Mission Impossible doesn’t start questioning its own virility, it could well become as stale as Bond by the point of the overblown, cartoonish Die Another Day in 2002. Rogue Nation wants to understand what purpose the IMF serves, both in terms of the world inside of Mission Impossible and out.
In this respect, McQuarrie chooses to turn the character of William Brandt into the equivalent M figure from Skyfall’s defence of the 00 section, and the closest thing to an IMF ‘Secretary’ the film has – given Hunley takes the entire film to naturally slip into that role. This is a logical step for Brandt, who started out as an assistant to Tom Wilkinson’s quickly offed Secretary in Ghost Protocol, but it also further cements the idea that Jeremy Renner is never going to take over the leading role in Mission Impossible from Cruise. Rogue Nation relegates him to the role of a supporting functionary when Ghost Protocol showed he had serious fighting skills, and could potentially have taken over the mantle should Cruise have decided to let Ethan go.
Perhaps Renner’s less than stellar leading man career put paid to that but, rather, you sense McQuarrie understands the power of Cruise and of Ethan as the lynchpin of this incarnation of Mission Impossible.
McQuarrie also does something we haven’t seen since John Woo’s MI2 – he plays with duality. Woo’s film tapped into mythological antecedents but was also visibly less complicated, with Ethan the pure hero against Ambrose’s corrupt bad apple. The lines of good and evil were more clearly drawn. McQuarrie does not do the same here with Ethan and arch villain of the piece Solomon Lane, played with snake-like raspiness by Sean Harris.
While Ethan is demonstrably a virtuous American hero against Harris’ monstrous British villain, they are both drawn as grand chess masters, each attempting to outwit the other with a similar set of spymaster skills. Solomon and his Syndicate keeps the IMF and British government at bay, while Ethan does exactly the same with the CIA and the Americans. A lesser film could easily have had Solomon whisper a “we’re not so different, you and I…” into Ethan’s ear and it would have rang true.
To even further make the point that Rogue Nation is playing off some of MI2‘s concepts, McQuarrie even puts Ethan back on a motorbike for the first time since that film and, guess what? He rocks it better 15 years later.
The Syndicate are described jointly as the ‘anti-IMF’ and the ‘rogue nation’ of the title, but given how McQuarrie challenges the virtue of the IMF in the way Woo challenged the virtue of Ethan in MI2, and the Syndicate works as a dark reflection of the IMF, so Lane by degrees works as a dark reflection of Ethan. How exactly though is the Syndicate in any stretch of the imagination a ‘nation’? That implies territory and sovereignty and in reality the Syndicate is as much one man as we have seen the IMF to be over the last four films. You wouldn’t classify the IMF as a nation so it remains a strange choice to name the Syndicate as such, when they’re in many ways smoke and mirrors to disguise the machiavellian scheming of a vengeful, solitary figure who wants to watch the world burn.
Is there a nationalistic fervour about Lane we don’t really see? Is this why McQuarrie has him assassinate an Austrian Chancellor who could easily have stepped out of the year 1914? Does he want to trigger a new age ‘Great War’?
In that respect, Lane reflects less the detached, techno-anarchism of Ghost Protocol’s villain Hendricks, and more of a tactical Mission Impossible take on Batman’s The Joker, and McQuarrie has stated as much:
Evil is a really tough concept for me. The idea of a villain that is bad for bad’s sake seems kind of absurd, unless you have someone like Heath Ledger, as The Joker, who really was….you believed that his philosophy was that he had no philosophy. [The Joker] got off on the creativity with which he created chaos, because he was kind of angry at the world. What would make the anti-Ethan Hunt? We didn’t really come by it naturally. If you look at “The Dark Knight,” it isn’t Batman’s movie. It’s The Joker’s movie, and the more fleshed-out your villain becomes, the darker the movie becomes, and we didn’t want to go to a place where it was … It wasn’t a dark and brooding thing about villainy. It was more about the villain’s search to create a set of circumstances by which the movie moved forward, and that’s really where it became clear to us that Lane had a plan, and Lane had the upper hand on Ethan almost through the entire movie. In my mind, Lane and The Syndicate had a methodology and had a philosophy. They’re not evil for evil’s sake. Solomon Lane believes that what he’s doing is good.
The script, nor Harris’ malevolent performance, never really makes you believe Lane is one of those classic ‘bad guys who believe they’re the hero’. We have seen that done far better in many other movies and TV shows. Lane is lacking the shades of grey, even if he is a stronger source of villainy than Ghost Protocol’s barely visible Hendricks. Lane at least feels present even when he isn’t on screen, given how Ethan becomes obsessed by the man as almost an anti-American ‘bogeyman’ who only he believes exists. It’s almost a shame Rogue Nation doesn’t play him as even more of a ‘man behind the curtain’ and really make the audience question if Ethan hasn’t just imagined Lane and the Syndicate to reinforce his own nihilistic determination to save the world, no matter what the cost or, to presage the next film, the fallout.
McQuarrie in the same interview as quoted above admits he canned Ghost Protocol’s original plan to have Ethan’s wife Julia, played by Michelle Monaghan in MI3, be killed off screen between those movies, and it was his decision to take her out of play but have her remain central to Ethan’s psychology – he has removed himself from her life to protect her. It’s strange therefore that Julia isn’t even mentioned once in Rogue Nation as part of the catalyst for why Ethan becomes obsessed with Lane and the Syndicate, because Ethan is clearly not in the best of mental health in this movie. He goes rogue for six months, plays games with the CIA, manipulates friends like Benji into helping him, and ultimately gambles with people’s lives in his crusade to expose Lane and prove not just his own innocence & virtue, but that of the IMF.
If there is one character who captures the duality inherent in Rogue Nation which McQuarrie is attempting to reach underneath the showmanship, it is Rebecca Ferguson’s breakout turn as mercurial mystery woman Ilsa Faust.
While she is ostensibly a British secret agent being manipulated by her own government, her name suggests Ferguson’s own European/Scandinavian origins and, indeed, references the ‘deal with the Devil’ she has made in the film to take down the Syndicate. Faust in mythology, of course, is the figure who sacrifices his soul to the Devil for his own gain, and Rogue Nation constantly plays with whether or not we should trust Ilsa. Even by the end, there is a sense we don’t truly know who this woman is, what side she was really playing, and whether she is innately ‘good’ or ‘evil’. It just isn’t that simple.
There is also a question as to quite who the Devil figure in Rogue Nation is. While ostensibly it is the shadowy manipulator Lane, the true villain of the piece is probably Simon McBurney’s British spymaster Atlee. Putting aside the irony that such a dark figure at the heart of British politics shares the name of the first, post-war socialist Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Atlee is the one in Rogue Nation who created the Syndicate. He took men and women like Lane—disaffected government agents across the globe—and attempted to fashion them into a secret organisation, without oversight, who could safeguard British interests.
Lane is a pawn who took control of the game, but Ilsa is as much manipulated by Atlee’s attempts to destroy his own creation as she is the creation herself. If Lane is the dark inversion of Ethan, and the Syndicate the dark inversion of the IMF, then Atlee is the dark inversion of every IMF boss from Anthony Hopkins to Alec Baldwin.
McQuarrie also here conveys a deeper, growing fear that Western democracy is being corrupted from within by organisations operating without oversight, exacting absolute control over their subjects and using people as pawns in their power games. Spectre, released the same year, ends up working along similar lines as Rogue Nation, in how 007 ends up chasing the shadowy, presumed dead Blofeld and his organisation no one believes exists. A group who have reached their tentacles into the British intelligence services thanks to Andrew Scott’s essentially radicalised ‘C’, taking control of the 00 section and the entire SIS with a new, streamlined service designed to control ‘information’ – which in fact is just a cover for the organisation’s global dominance over democracy.
The Syndicate are also, essentially, the same concept as J.J. Abrams used in his TV show Alias for the Alliance of 12, and given how much of an influence Alias had on the franchise from MI3 onwards, and Abrams’ still present role as producer, you wonder if this wasn’t in the back of McQ’s mind. Rogue Nation is ultimately afraid that absolute power will corrupt absolutely.
Both Ethan and Ilsa, who is probably the closest we will ever come to a female James Bond given Ferguson’s seductive, Hollywood Golden Age glamour alongside incredible physical prowess, are precisely the kind of pawns these big governments and shadowy paymasters cannot control. Rogue Nation is constantly attempting to make the point that someone like Ethan, who like Bond is steadily passing into legend (early on, a doomed younger IMF agent even says to him “I’ve heard stories, they can’t all be true…” to which Ethan just smiles enigmatically), represents a level of freedom from all-powerful state oversight. He doesn’t fit in a world where men like Hunley are trying to control and box intelligence agencies in for fear they might lose some of that power. In that sense, Ethan is as much an anarchist as Lane, the only difference being that while Lane wants to take lives and destabilise the ‘system’ that created him, Ethan still wants to protect and safeguard democracy.
Though the description is almost laughable in how arch and ridiculous it sounds, Hunley at one point describes Ethan Hunt as the “living manifestation of destiny” and you can’t help but wonder if McQuarrie does not just mean the character but also Tom Cruise himself. Mission Impossible seems destined to return to where it began, with a decryption of what the entire concept means in a modern day context.
If anything Rogue Nation is deconstructing De Palma’s deconstruction, and trying to figure out how and why Cruise transformed what could have been an enjoyable but fairly forgettable couple of films, bringing back an iconic piece of 60’s television, into one of the most durable action franchises in Hollywood history. It isn’t just Ethan passing into legend within Mission Impossible, but the same is happening, if it hasn’t happened already, to Cruise.
While Rogue Nation doesn’t boast anything quite as well constructed as the Langley break in from De Palma’s first movie or the protracted Dubai set piece of Ghost Protocol (though the terrific Vienna Opera House sequence comes very close), and the ending oddly scales downwards when the rest of the picture has been consistently punching up and up and up from the beginning, it manages to stand overall as a piece alongside the first 1996 outing for the franchise simply for how well it balances all of its constituent elements. It is thrilling and dramatic, stylish while having substance, and tricksy without ever feeling confusing. McQuarrie doesn’t reinvent the Mission Impossible wheel, but he polishes it and at the same time finds away to prove its relevance and place in a way Bond, with Spectre, struggled in the same way to do.
How many other fifth films in a franchise that have been running for 20 years feel as strong and healthy as this? Mission Impossible, thanks in no small part to Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie as a team, are turning this franchise into a cinematic fountain of youth. And their best is yet to come.
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