A Franchise Goes Rogue

Let’s not beat around the bush: 2015 is a frachise-y as fuck year. Yes, sequels are present in every year during this era of cinema, but it was hardly ever as saturated as this. My favorite movie of the year so far is essentially Mad Max 4, the movie I look forward to most is essentially The Act of Killing 2. The highest-grossing film of the year so far (and looks like it may possibly stay that way) is essentially Jurassic Park 4, while this year’s two other billion-dollar-mark-breaking are pretty much The Fast and the Furious 7 and The Avengers 2 (or if we wanna be really technical, Marvel 11). We’ve even got more modest projects like Pitch Perfect and Sinister and The Woman in Black have gotten their sequel treatment. The highest grossing picture of Sony fucking Pictures is Blart Blart: Mall Blart 2. Franchises are possibly starting anew with Fifty Shades of Grey getting its first  rag adapted.

And we still have the wave of James Bond 23 and Star Wars 7 to get under.

I can’t list them all. That’s not the point of this and I should get to it by now.

The opening point I’m trying to make is that the majority of these franchises base themselves on using the first installment as a launch-pad to propel the story for the sequel (not the case for Mad Max or Blart Blart, but nothing in the latter really has any sense to it).

Mission: Impossible is a franchise that, for better or worse, doesn’t subscribe to that in the slightest. Not only narratively, but stylistically, you will not be bale to capture any two installments in that franchise and find a whole lot of aesthetic similarities. Considering the revolving door of directors that walk into the series to enter their own idea of scenarios for IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) to leap through, it’s only slightly a surprise to find that each Mission: Impossible entry fits a lot more snugly into its own director’s canon than alongside each other as a collective series of events. Mission: Impossible is inherently more a Brian De Palma film than a Mission: Impossible film (a statement which is more true of a statement about this film than any of the latter films, but I’ll get into that when I review it shortly), Mission: Impossible II is a John Woo farce and an Australian travelogue more than a IMF missions film, Mission: Impossible III is more a television movie than a movie at all. Which is quite fine by me because they all are also not good in my opinion (though I am beginning to soften slightly on the first film – and De Palma in general).

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol itself is a bit of a paradox as it showcases Brad Bird’s vast imagination for setpieces and design, even as his very first live-action feature, while also being the first in the franchise to stress the teamwork aspect of the espionage inherent in the original Mission: Impossible television series that aired from 1966 to 1983. Still a Tom Cruise film and still more an action picture than a mind game but also perhaps the first time the franchise attempted to go back to the vein of the source material (a fact which makes me extremely happy since I actually love the original series – between Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, my child life was covered with Leonard Nimoy).

But I’m over 500 words in and that’s a long way to go before actually naming the movie I’m reviewing; I’ll get back to each of those M:I entries when I review them later this week.

In spite of all I said about director’s canon and how refreshingly self-distinguished each M:I film stands in their own spot especially in a year like 2015, I have to say I don’t have the means to square Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation as a Christopher McQuarrie film yet. Despite seeing many of McQuarrie’s writing work, I have admittedly not seen his two previous directorial pictures: The Way of the Gun and Jack Reacher (the latter being something I’ve always been curious to see based on the casting of Werner Herzog). But if Rogue Nation is any indication, the man has a pretty good knack for stylistically accommodating the demands of every single action setpiece within the film – from the much-advertised “Tom Cruise is really hanging off a plane” sequence to an intense mix between melee combat and footchase with all the heavy weight and damage of a car chase – while having trouble keeping the plot strands from tangling up and convoluting themselves, but hell, The Usual Suspects could have told me that last part.

What that plot is before it actually tangles itself up is that Hunt has himself become the target of an ultra-secret organization known as The Syndicate after poking around too many times into their plans, ending up kidnapped and tortured before curiously being rescued by a mysterious Syndicate member (Rebecca Ferguson). Hunt has of course picked a bad time to be such prey to an agency with a superpower of being one step ahead of the IMF, for the IMF is apparently being disavowed and its assets liquidated to the CIA under its Chief Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) and while former IMF Director Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and field agent Benji (Simon Pegg) strive to throw the CIA off their manhunt for Hunt, they can’t do much for a while except watch as he stays disappeared and relies on the kindness of Ilsa Faust, the mysterious stranger that helped him get away from the Syndicate’s clutches, and hunts Soloman Lane (Sean Harris), the big face of the Syndicate.

Eventually, the status of Hunt becomes enough of a priority that Benji is drafted into his wing, while Hunley and the CIA doubles-down on their search and Brandt and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, the only cast member other than Cruise to be in the entire series up to this point) find it imperative to get to Hunt and Benji before the CIA does.

You get what I mean by a lot of strands? But that’s quite fine because the action sequences get up, the plot knows certainly well enough to pause and let us bask in the distinctive styles that each setpiece adapts – there’s a free-flowing, slow drift momentum to an underwater diving sequence (which adds remarkable tension given our knowledge of the ticking timeclock of the character’s oxygen), there’s a central opera setpiece so aware of its musicality in Eddie Hamilton’s editing to match up in syncopation of “Nessun Dorma”, there’s a car chase turned motorcycle chase that has all the frenetic energy that can barely hold the frame together from the point of view of the motorcyclists (also, the fact that there’s a moment where Hunt has to lift up his knee on a very sharp turn is one of my favorite subtle character beats in an action sequence yet). It’s all there to keep us very satisfied even when the plot has become more and more of a mess than we would have liked.

And then there’s the fact that as a team, Cruise and company are all able to match together. Cruise has been feeling comfortable in the role of Hunt since Ghost Protocol and his ability to finally find a point between solid confident charisma for the character rather than utterly urgent distress lingering on constipation that has been his signature for the first three movies is such a happy thing for me when he has to match comedic banter with Pegg and Renner, the latter finally having stuff to do and lines that he can read with an awareness of what ground he stands on in the story between Hunley and Hunt (maybe 2015 is the year of Jeremy Renner actually feeling like an entity in film again as opposed to just some guy who keeps popping up in my action movies). And of course, Cruise and Rhames’ friendly associate chemistry since M:I III has never faltered, but the real stunner is how Ferguson, a Swedish actress whom I had never known of before (even when she had a couple of British television production credits), is able to stand alongside Cruise in the frame and take as much gravity in the scenario as she needs so that we can see both Hunt and Faust as equals – everymen stuck in a world of espionage that refuses any accountability for them and willing to disavow them as collateral. She’s mysterious and at once sympathetic, she’s a shadow and at once the most human character in the film, and this is especially impressive when the majority of those third act convolutions that I hold aside (since a lot of them are kind of spoilers) actually revolve around Faust as a character and still Ferguson is able to hold her own as a solid part of the M:I world. Nothing in the franchise suggests that the character will return and that’s sort of a shame since she’s easily my favorite character they’ve gotten since Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s very unimpressed with IMF Owen Davian.

Still it’s all just a fluff piece, but this fluff is some great fluff. Like the Fast and the Furious franchise (another bit of fluff), the Mission: Impossible films of the past few years have shown them finally being able to catch their footing and finding their best installments yet and while I still prefer Ghost Protocol for how much it dedicates itself to being more of a showcase for action, I can’t say Rogue Nation doesn’t at least fine-tune and add spades to those setpieces in its pacing, in cinematographer Robert Elswit’s ambitious movements and spaces for the camera, in even suggesting a universe beyond the IMF without being overwhelmingly franchise-y about it like Marvel, providing one of the biggest breaths of fresh action movie air I’ve had in a long while and an enjoyable enough ride to stand beside Mad Max: Fury Road for now.

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