Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation reveals a series at the very top of its game. It’s a solid piece of work, a near-perfect synthesis of the camaraderie and the Eurothriller, cloak-and-dagger elements of the first (which many enjoyed) and the stylish romanticism of the second (which I appear to stand alone in celebrating). As such, it really calls attention to the tameness, the domesticated, down-to-earth mediocrity of the third (which, yes, I still enjoy, mainly for the revelation of Philip Seymour Hoffman as a villain) and the unfocused, flat-on-its-face maximalism of the fourth (which I’ll only ever watch again on a very desperate day).
Rogue Nation pastiches DePalma’s Hitchcockianism from the series debut in the form of a high energy sequence during the staging of Puccini’s Turandot. It reminded me here and there of the Tosca scene in Quantum of Solace (2008) (the opera mixed over the dialogue and effects on the soundtrack), but more importantly, it is an homage to (and expansion of) the Royal Albert Hall assassination sequence from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)–and pure homage it is, because there’s no reason for anyone to kill the Chancellor of Austria today, and the movie barely tries to explain it. Fabulous scene, a layered display of the power of hierarchy of knowledge–who’s who? and what’s what? and why? Action that leads to answers, answers that lead to new questions.
Rogue Nation borrows from the second movie the idea of a stylish, even sexy motorcycle chase. But Rogue‘s is perhaps the best I’ve every seen on film. It’s not just the stylishness that catches you–the feel that their knees are almost scraping the asphalt as they turn tight corners, the snaking designs of the highway revealed through overhead shots (which contrast with the strong horizontals earlier in the movie, the opening landscape of a field, the overhead shot of Pegg on an escalator in Vienna, etc., etc.). It’s that this chase is motivated by mystery. Why did Ilsa steal the drive? We now want to figure it all out–don’t let her go, Ethan. And she uses his affection for her–an almost John Woo-like turn toward sentiment (somewhat reminiscent of the short car chase in Casino Royale (2006), too)–to escape.
Speaking of Ilsa, she deserve her place among the strongest female action heroes this summer, right up there with Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015). Sure, the premise of the character is less than ‘feminist,’ but like Theron’s, Rebecca Ferguson’s character saves the male hero, on numerous occasions. Ferguson’s is a stellar action/spy movie performance–the expressive discipline of some of her suggestive glances, the weight of her blows, the smoothness and athleticism of her movements, the fact that we feel that she wants out even though this subplot is given little screen time. That’s what good acting can do.
What Rogue Nation has over the first two M:I movies, then, is a woman action hero, but more than that, a delicious master villain, easily the best in the franchise. Sean Harris’s Solomon Lane is a Silva-like character (pace Skyfall (2012)) with an almost horror-movie-like strangeness and unpleasantness to him, the psychologically damaged product (he thinks) of MI:6. A Bondian villain to be sure, combining retro qualities with modern ones. Like Blofeld, he is the mysterious head of a hidden organization–he even has an almost nehru-like sports coat in one scene. But like Trevelyan (Sean Bean in Goldeneye (1995)) and Silva, he is a former spy bent on revenge (and a little more), moving to take over a secret British program composed of supposedly dead agents. Harris’s performance is appropriately steely; he gives Lane a blank, expressionless demeanor (which, along with his blond crew cut, echoes Robert Shaw’s Grant in From Russia With Love (1963)), and a raspy, wheezy voice. I for one find it interesting that we’re apparently returning, in slightly less overt ways, to the distilled, cartoony macabre with our movie villains, where the entire character is boiled down to an odd tick, a scar or a ‘disability.’ Ian Fleming relied on these types of characterization heavily–no, too heavily, to the point where his villains were depicted as sexual, social or physical deviants (that is, Fleming’s notion of deviancy–missing limbs, asexuality, BDSM, queer, etc.), with Bond portrayed as the model of normalcy on some level, of course.
One of the best scenes in a movie with loads of candidates is the climax, where they trap Lane. We never see it coming, but better than that, the image of the defeated villain staring coldly at Hunt through his glass cage (like Silva’s!), the cage filling with a cloud of gas, echoes one of the opening scenes, thus giving the movie a tidy symmetrical feel. It’s surely one of the best comeuppances written for a villain in recent memory.