Saturday, 5 September 2015

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

The Mission: Impossible series of films has had a pretty rocky history all things considered, with each instalment seemingly designed specifically to correct an apparent ‘flaw’ with the previous one. When the first MI film’s intricate plot (read: convoluted and fuelled by blind luck) didn’t connect with audiences, rather than iron out the wrinkles and actually create a story that is as intelligent as it thinks it is unlike that film, the writers just threw it all out and made everything blindingly obvious to everyone involved with the sequel. When that fared even worse, J.J. Abrams decided to delve into the realm of self-parody for MI: 3, making fun of the tropes of the series while doing its best to improve in whatever areas it could. Then came Ghost Protocol, and something happened. All of a sudden, the characters, writing, action beats and effects work harmonized with each other to create easily the best installment out of all of them. So, with the directorial seat being switched out once again as per MI tradition, how does today’s film follow up on that surprise success? This is Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation.

The plot: After years of chasing the phantom terrorist organization The Syndicate, IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has been captured and made a fugitive in the eyes of the CIA, leading to Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) dismantling the IMF for good. As Ethan once again sets out to clear his name while also stopping the Syndicate’s leader (Sean Harris) from wreaking any further havoc across the world, and Syndicate agent Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) plays double-agent, his former teammates Benji (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) do their best to assist him while keeping off of Hunley’s radar.

As soon as the film starts, the pacing starts to waver. The film opens on the amazing overblown airplane scene from the trailer, which immediately sets too high a benchmark in terms of set pieces for the rest of the film to follow. After the rope fuse credits, we then go to Ethan Hunt being set up by the Syndicate, cut alongside Agent Brandt attending a hearing where it is decided to get rid of the IMF; all of this within the space of about 10-15 minutes. From there, the action scenes keep getting stacked up right next to each other, never really allowing for breathing room. I know that action spy antics are what’s to be expected from a Mission: Impossible film, but when your big heist scene is followed up by not one but two motorcycle chase scenes right after each other, something has gone awry. Don’t get me wrong, the action set pieces are still good: The aforementioned heist scene shows that the franchise is still trying to innovate after all this time, and the fight scene in the opera house might have some of the most creative weaponry I’ve seen in a long time; it’s just that their placement weakens their efficacy. That’s not to say that this is a unique instance in the franchise, as this kind of pacing issue has popped up before, but after the immense breakthrough that was Ghost Protocol, I thought we had progressed past this.

This might be the most inconsistently written in the entire series, in that it equally represents both the highest and lowest points of the entire series. It reaches the lowest because, in terms of Ethan’s characterization, it regresses all the way back to John Woo’s MI: 2 where Cruise’s ego was in the driver’s seat. Or, rather, was in the driver’s seat until he leapt out of it so that Cruise could body slam into another driver. Yeah, we seriously reach motorcycle-jousting levels of cheese here at points. There’s a scene where Hunley describes Ethan Hunt and exactly how much of a threat he is, and you can almost hear Cruise’s raging hard-on from behind the camera with how flatteringly it’s written. We also get an unfortunate side effect of the heightened focus on action scenes: A serious reduction in character-building moments. Of course, given how we’ve been following these characters for at least 2 prior films, but that doesn’t mean that their development should just stop dead right there and, aside from some moments for Benji, that is the case here unfortunately.

However, with that said, this film still reaches new heights in terms of writing as Christopher McQuarrie and Iron Man 3 co-writer Drew Pearce bring some very murky political tones to the film. Throughout the film, aside from the femme fatales, rotating director’s chair and relatively weak villains, one of the big recurring themes of the franchise has been that IMF might have the weakest security of any fictional secret agency, given how often agents go rogue or are otherwise compromised in these films. Here, all of that seems to catch up with our leads and Ethan’s destructive methods in the last four films are given a decidedly greyer moral tinge. In conversations between Ethan and Ilsa, the script makes points in discussing exactly how far these agents are willing to go to complete their mission, even if it means advancing the agenda of their enemy. Ethan has usually gotten by by subverting his opponents’ attempts to set him up and/or recruit him, but through Ilsa, we see that that isn’t always possible.

Since J.J. Abrams starting putting his money into the series, these films have been consistently trying to get back to the serpentine spy thriller plot of the original and actually make it work; either tongue-in-cheek with the third instalment or earnestly with Ghost Protocol. This film continues with that tradition considering the double and triple-crosses that take place amongst the film’s characters, and not just Ethan and Ilsa either, as well as the operations and motives of the Syndicate itself. When the film isn’t aiming for loud and roaring action, its more taut and stealthy moments are very well-executed and make for some seriously tense nail-biters. Even the film has made it a point of revolving around Ethan Hunt being set-up in one way or another, the atmosphere presented by his genuinely isolated predicament is thick with desperation to stay one step ahead of both Hanley and the Syndicate. This is helped immensely by our cast, with Cruise and Pegg creating the majority of the film’s dramatic beats. You haven’t known tension until you’ve seen them and Ferguson in a cafĂ© together. I may begrudge this film’s decision to push Brendt to the sidelines as they did, but he still works within the film’s framework and Ving Rhames is always fun as Luther. Amongst our new faces to the film are Ferguson, who pulls off the more conflicted aspects of her character nicely, and Harris as the shadowy leader of the Syndicate, who may follow series tradition for weak antagonists (save for MI: 3, because Philip Seymour Hoffman is awesome) but… actually, I can’t really give much praise to him here. I know that being soft-spoken can be menacing in the right hands, but he’s a little too soft-spoken for that to work here.

All in all, this is about on par with the series as a whole, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to Ghost Protocol. The action beats, while huddled together, are well-directed and realized, the acting is still good from the returning cast and the newcomers, and the writing may dip back into the series’ early sins but it also transcends them and sets a new bar for the next film to catch up to at the same time. This might be the most inconsistently written film this year since Chappie, but I’m a lot less conflicted about it: It’s worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of the series already. It ranks higher than Manny Lewis, which may be a lot stronger in terms of character writing but the overall package won out. However, the events of The Theory Of Everything worked better because more effort was made to connect the character to the audience, something this film was honestly lacking.

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