M:I–Rogue Nation traces the series’ path in reverse

We are celebrating the Christmas in July that is the release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout all week long! Click on the image for all of the entries:

“I know you, Lane. Somewhere along the line you had a crisis of faith – human life didn’t matter anymore, or maybe it never really did. Either way, you killed too many innocent people without ever asking who was giving the orders, or why. You blamed the system for what you are, instead of yourself. You wanted revenge. But Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day. You needed help, you needed money – a lot of it. And you’ll stop at nothing to get it. That’s how I know I’m gonna put you in a box.”

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is far and away my favorite entry in the series, thanks in no small part to the Cruise/McQuarrie relationship that’s been budding over the years. They took the torch that Brad Bird lit in Ghost Protocol–that of the IMF being a make-shift family that relies on one another until the very end–and they ran with it. In Benji they realized Ethan has a best friend, and in Ilsa Faust they gave Ethan a true equal, a sister-in-ams, as it were. Brandt, Luther, and even Hunley round out the family as friends Ethan can trust. And not just to execute a mission, but to put their trust in him when no one else will, even against their own better judgement. I like to call this the Fast & Furious Fambly Formula, or FFFF. And it works like gangbusters here.

But the reason I love this movie so much is because it’s essentially an inverted summer blockbuster. This series is known not just for it’s incredible practical stunts, but for Cruise’s willingness to put his life on the line to perform those stunts himself. That is quite literally the brand of Mission: Impossible, so much so that the advertising campaigns always heavily rely on teasing the big, final set piece. As such, Rogue Nation’s campaign was all centered around Cruise’s most insane stunt yet – hanging off the side of plane as it took off. And it is indeed insane, and absolutely thrilling to watch. But the most surprising thing about this stunt is that it’s the very first thing that happens in the movie. When I saw it in theaters, I thought for sure it was a promise that the movie was holding something even bigger, even grander, even more impressive back from us.

And it’s not that the movie wasn’t. The Opera House sequence is a spectacular game of espionage that we play along with the characters. The underwater heist is technically impressive, if perhaps a bit too technical to convey the practical stunt that McQuarrie assures us Cruise did in fact perform. The ensuing car chase that is immediately followed by a motorcycle chase is one of my favorites in recent memory. The movie absolutely continues to deliver, but it never gets back to being as big and insane as that impressive opening stunt. What it does instead is get smaller and smaller and smaller until we get to the finale, which is an old-school, noir foot chase through foggy alleyways, concluding with Ethan outwitting the bad guy and, as he promises just 20 minutes earlier, trapping him in a box, like a rat in a cage.

That excellent piece of writing aside, what I love so much about this inversion of the standard American action movie is that it puts all of the stakes in its characters, rather than in the set pieces themselves. That’s not to say the action doesn’t achieve the kind of spectacle we’ve come to expect from this series, it certainly does. But that spectacle is amplified by being rooted in character and the drama that comes from understanding who they are, what they’re motivated by, and how much they care about each other (or in the case of Ilsa, by being intentionally uncertain of all of these things). The underwater heist for example, being the one set piece that doesn’t quite click like the others do, results in one the most tense, heart-wrenching moments of the movie when Benji realizes he’s nearly killed Ethan by blindly believing he’s nearly superhuman in his abilities. And that moment injects so much emotion into the two chase sequences that will follow, which are both incredibly well shot and edited and work on their own, but are so much more exciting for carrying the weight of the characters with them.

By starting as big as they could possibly get, and getting progressively smaller in their execution but larger in their intent, Cruise and McQuarrie created one of the most thrilling action movies of this decade, and the best, most personal film in this franchise (as of this writing – you best believe I’ll be there opening night for Fallout, cause ya know I can’t fight the friction). Not only that, but by doing so they also made a “greatest hits” Mission: Impossible movie, going backwards through the kinds of large stunts that defined each previous entry until they reach the destination of DePalma’s original with that shadowy foot chase. It’s a brilliant blueprint for an action movie, and one that seems unique to this franchise. I doubt the Fast & Furious series could pull this off (which you know I love dearly), as stealing a bunch of DVD players for your finale barely even worked in 2001. But the DNA of Mission: Impossible is in the kind of action that is evergreen. If we know who the players are and why their actions matter, anything can be exciting, and even emotional.

And best of all, by walking us backwards through the series, they’ve set themselves up to go anywhere in the future. Rogue Nation feels like a conclusion of sorts, but not a finality. A larger chapter in Ethan Hunt’s life has ended, and a new one has begun. Ethan’s assumed family is now a singular unit, bonded by faith in one another. The IMF is rejuvenated and renewed, able to march forward into the future and face new, untold threats. Unless of course, their cat and mouse game with Solomon Lane has some unintended… Fallout.

Author: Garrett Smith

Garrett is a writer and podcaster living in Philadelphia that spends too much time debating the difference between kinetic and frenetic filmmaking. He likes cheese, in both food and movies. Check him out on twitter and letterboxd and give his podcast, I Like To Movie Movie, a listen.

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