Thursday, June 7, 2018

Mission Rewatchable, Part Rogue

After realizing I hadn't seen most since their theatrical runs, I'm rewatching and reevaluating the Mission: Impossible film series in preparation for Fallout.

This one just came out a few years ago, so I'm not even going to joke about the *SPOILER WARNING* - if you haven't seen Rogue Nation yet, watch it before reading. It actually matters this time.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

When I wrote about Ghost Protocol, I mentioned that I found its 93% Freshness Rating baffling, because I found it far higher than I thought the movie deserved. By coincidence, Rogue Nation has the exact same score on Rotten Tomatoes, and once again, I find it baffling. Only this time, it's because 93% feels absurdly low.

Watching through Rogue Nation for a second time, I found myself engrossed in every scene, despite the fact I remembered what happened fairly well (it's only been a few years, after all). I think there's an argument to be made - in fact, I'll be making this argument in a moment - that this is as close to a perfect movie as this sub-genre has ever produced. I'll be clearer: in one sense, I think this is a better movie than any of the Bond installments.

Though in a different, less fair sense, it isn't.

Rogue Nation is a fantastic film, easily the best in this series and one of the best genre movies in recent years. However, there's one area where it falls a little flat. It's not all that memorable. The issue is the same that's plagued this series since Mission: Impossible II, the movie that made Ethan Hunt into a generic lead. This movie is clearly evoking Bond, but Hunt is no substitute for 007. In the first MI installment, Hunt was at least different. He had his own set of skills and didn't rely on Bond's techniques. But, again, MI2 threw all that out, and in doing so essentially established a ceiling for how good this series could possibly be. Rogue Nation, to its credit, hits that ceiling in the cold opening and never drops an inch.

This wants desperately to be a Bond movie. Even the music occasionally nods to the more famous franchise. And, of course, its premise is outright stolen. Yes, there was a version of "The Syndicate" on the original television series, but the Syndicate presented here is clearly a spin on Spectre. It feels trivial to say it's a far better spin than the movie Spectre managed, so I'll take this a step further: this is a more interesting version of Spectre than the Connery Bond movies employed.

It's not a better Blofeld, though. I mean, it's better than the "Bond's lost adopted brother" garbage they employed in Spectre, but the same can be said of Doctor Claw from the live-action 90's Inspector Gadget movie. The villain at the core of Rogue Nation's Syndicate is, like Hunt, a generic facsimile. He's a really good facsimile, but there's no mistaking him for the genuine article.

There are actually some advantages to being generic versions of iconic figures. For one, Ethan Hunt isn't obligated to sleep with every woman he comes across. Only the second movie imposes a cliched romance - the third did have Ethan in a relationship, but it subverted almost every spy movie trope in the best way possible. Rogue Nation introduces Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust, who is mercifully never paired romantically with Cruise.

It does falter around at least one unfortunate trope, though. Early on, we get a fairly classic fridging. The character killed is a new one, and her death is explicitly there to motivate the lead (or at least that's the villain's intent). It works in the context of the movie, but I wanted to mention it due to this series's history. One of the few constant character traits Hunt has is that he gets angry when young women die. It was established in the first movie, and it keeps coming up. I suppose it's better than if he didn't care all that much (i.e.: the current incarnation of Bond), but it's unfortunate this series has become such an easy go-to example for the trope.

Rogue Nation moves at an absolutely breathtaking pace, shifting effortlessly from location to location as the characters chase the McGuffin, which we actually care about for once. The reason we care is because the mystery behind the McGuffin is directly tied to one we actually have a reason to be invested in - Ilsa Faust, a double (triple? Quadruple? I honestly lose track) agent whose loyalties, background, and future are bound to the magical digital mystery box everyone's chasing. We care because she's intriguing, and we can't understand her without understanding what she's after.

In Ghost Protocol, they were ostensibly fighting over a McGuffin that could bring about nuclear Armageddon. This time, they're after money, and somehow the stakes feel far higher.

The action sequences in this movie are staged and executed beautifully. We get a opera sequence evocative of the one from Living Daylights, only here it's escalated by several orders of magnitude. We get an exhilarating chase sequence that uses comic relief to build tension - seriously, this thing is a work of genius. Ferguson is used heavily - Ilsa's is about a hair away from getting equal screen time to Cruise. This is much appreciated, since both her character and fighting style are far more interesting.

Ultimately, this is a movie that's somehow better than it can possibly be. It's essentially the perfect encapsulation of what this genre is capable of, a virtually flawless execution that, by all rights, should be celebrated by genre fans the way The Avengers or The Dark Knight are. The difference isn't due to quality; it's due to cultural significance, the one ingredient Rogue Nation - and the Mission: Impossible series in general - lacks.

All that being said, I'll be really interested to see if Mission: Impossible - Fallout can prove me wrong and maybe find a way for this series to distinguish itself. I'm skeptical it's possible at this point, but after rewatching Rogue Nation, I'm hesitant to bet against McQuarrie. This movie really is incredible.

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