MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: Rogue Nation (2015)

It’s strange.  I was totally hyped and ready to be blown away.  The stunts are amazing, and Tom Cruise puts everything it is possible for a star to put into his performance.   The “team” aspect of the movie works better than it ever has: for the first time in the series, you can really feel how each member contributes to the whole, supporting each other beautifully, accomplishing things no one of them could have done alone, not even the indefatigable Ethan Hunt.

And the female lead: wow! Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust (one of the most playful names I’ve ever seen) is about as close to Modesty Blaise as I’ve seen onscreen, and that’s both a positive and negative thing, as I’ll comment later.  (A question: when did every woman onscreen start fighting like Black Widow?  I’m assuming those flowing moves originate from some grappling art, but aside from Ronda Rousey’s hybrid Judo-MMA, I just don’t know what that is.  Looks great, though!)

The plot, if you choose to accept it, deals with a super secret “Rogue Nation” of supposedly dead ex-agents causing chaos around the world.    Hunt is trying to expose it at the same time that CIA chief Alec Baldwin defunds the eponymous Impossible Missions Force, thereby forcing Hunt to recruit a secret group of allies to take down said terrorist net.

And of course, stunts ensue. And they are wonderful, as good as you could want. Truely, Cruise has morphed into a contemporary version of the daredevil Jackie Chan was twenty years ago, and it is exhilarating.

(SPOILERS FOLLOW)

But…I knew there was something wrong when that notorious trailer sequence (Ethan hanging off the side of the cargo plane) starts the movie.   It is clearly designed not to facilitate plot but to get butts into the seats due to the internet buzz.  That works fine. And as in a Bond pre-credit sequence it sets up the approximate world of these super-spies.  Yes, yes, Ethan will do ANYTHING to fulfill his mission. He is amazing physically, and puts his life totally in the hands of his team.

Yes.  But the very insistence on showing us that this is, indeed Tom Cruise forces you out of the movie, just a bit. It’s not the character, Ethan Hunt, who lives in a fantasy world, it is TOM CRUISE, SUPER STAR hanging off that plane for your entertainment. And…it is entertaining.   But oddly, when the sequence was over and the credits rolled, I found myself saying: “is that all there is?”

And that was a very strange feeling for someone who loves action as much as I do.   I mean…wtf?   Couldn’t figure out why I would react that way to what may well have been the most amazing stunt I’ve ever seen a star do in my life.

As the movie went on, one astonishing sequence at a time, I found myself feeling that this movie was…”compulsively entertaining.”   They were just trying SO hard to be the best that they forgot that the thing that makes the stunts work is believing in the characters, their interactions and connections, their inner worlds.

And as in “Quantum of Solace” the interstitial material was too obviously just that: stitching to hold together THOSE ACTION SEQUENCES!!!

Yes, that’s Tom Cruise holding his breath for (reportedly) 6 ½ minutes!  Yes, that’s Cruise riding his motorcycle in a way that makes Steve McQueen look like PeeWee Herman.  Wow!   Look at those fight scenes!  And that perfectly toned body!

(and except for Simon Pegg, note, in small print, Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner doing funny, important things.   Notice them?  Now back to Cruise…and Ferguson)

Who was an absolute winner in her role as a hyper-competent gender-opp doppleganger for Hunt. And that was a problem.

Because there was zero sexual chemistry between the two.  Here are two people born for each other.   She is his match in every way, they save each other’s lives countless times, she is clearly hugely attracted to him, and there is no earthly reason he would not be attracted to her as well.  Other, perhaps than some very strange urge not to…what, sexualize HIM?   I mean, he goes running around shirtless, and they cling to each other in various contexts, and risk lives for each other, and are as close to a genuine “hunting pair” as I’ve seen in a film EVER, and there is an odd reticence to “go there” and allow the core emotions of such a fantasy to boil.

Risk-taking, hugely physical highly energetic people tend to have very high sex drives.   ESPECIALLY in movies.   And oddly, they treated him as if he was Will Smith or something.  And that lack of internal life magnified the lack of down-time, opportunities to slow things down and let us FEEL the scrapes, and bruises, and fatigue, and despair, and the struggle not to collapse emotionally under stress that made us CARE about John McClaine, or Danial Craig’s James Bond.   But then they don’t give us the full fantasy either, except WOW THAT’S TOM CRUISE REALLY DOING THAT!!!

And its not enough.  It is fine, fine movie-making, but except for a fantastic sequence in an opera house (that looks like what you’d expect if Hitchcock directed Bond) it misses its opportunity to be what I’d call a “film.”

So that lack of down-time, and the lack of sexual spark with the leading lady (and she makes it SOOOO clear that she’s interested. And no, I don’t believe that he’s still mourning his lost marriage.  If you do, fine, and I’m happy for you.  I myself cannot), that I can’t find the emotional center, and the energy and perfection of the action actually tears that fragile tissue to shreds. The center cannot hold. And all that is left is the exclamation points.

Because what is on the screen is so amazing, I cannot help but give it a good grade, but greatness is beyond even Ethan’s considerable reach.  Unlike the previous, and superior, “Ghost Protocol” I didn’t feel that director Christopher McQuarrie really had the kind of unified vision Brad Bird brought to the table.   So “Rogue Nation” might well be the second-best of the series, but when you look at what is on the screen, and think what might have been…this could have been one of the all-time classic action films.  Think about what the “inner world” of the characters, the romance and history and connection did to “Raiders of the Lost Arc.”   Yes, it could have been THAT good.
But it isn’t.  I can only give it a “B.”   And that is a real shame.

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