How the prologue sets the stage in ‘Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation’

Ultimate Movie Year finds the best released films from weekends past to build an all-star lineup of cinema.

“Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation”
Released July 31, 2015
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

The prologue of “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” may be the best introduction to the film you’re about to watch that I’ve ever seen, and is the defining scene of Tom Cruise’s later career.

The IMF (Impossible Mission Force) team is trying to stop a cargo plane from taking off with a payload of nerve gas. Computer hacker Benji (Simon Pegg) is in the distance with his tablet, trying to stop the plane from taking off. Team members Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther (Ving Rhames) are helping remotely, but they can’t stop the flight. Here comes Ethan Hunt (Cruise) out of nowhere, running down (meme alert!) the departing plane and grabbing onto the door as it takes off. Here comes the money shot: Viewing from the back of the wing, we see Hunt on the side of the plane as it takes off in real-time, the ground becoming a distant landscape as our hero hangs on for dear life. No special effects, just practical ingenuity on the part of the filmmakers.

It’s a thrilling scene to be sure, but it also establishes everything we need to know about the movie we’re about to watch. We are introduced to the central IMF team (or reintroduced, if you’ve been following the series) quickly but effectively. The neurotic hacker Benji is on the ground dressed in comically extensive camouflage, always finding ways to crack into systems but not precisely the way you wanted him to. Luther is actually in Malishia on another project but still helping the current mission, showing he is a reliable and capable ally. The suited Brandt is the point man back in headquarters, leading operations for the team. Finally, Ethan, our hero, rushes onto the scene to hang onto the side of a departing cargo plane with his bare hands, a literally impossible feat. Once he finally gets inside the cabin, he straps himself to the nerve gas payload, shrugs at a pilot with a look that says, “This isn’t the craziest thing I’ve done today,” and promptly drops back out of the plane with the payload. It’s a masterwork in establishing the tone of everything you’ll see next, and it all happens in about four minutes.

The prologue also reminds us of the Cruise persona while dodging his controversial public life of Scientology and personal relationships. He’s a somewhat aloof character who rarely appears outside of his movies, where he’s often sprinting somewhere to put himself in incredible danger, and that’s not a metaphor. Cruise’s dedication to putting out the best film possible is to be admired, even if it’s probably easier and cheaper to have a stunt man or computer do it. The plane launch is an insane stunt to do, and that’s before you even think about the random elements (like debris or a bird) that could also put the star in danger. So of course, Cruise filmed the plane stunt eight different times, because that’s who he is now, or at least, who he wants us to think of.

As Cruise rose to become one of the most bankable movie stars on the planet at the end of the last century, he did so by making a variety of pictures, including “Risky Business,” “Top Gun,” “Rain Man,” “A Few Good Men” and “Jerry Maguire.” But after the turn of the century, Cruise’s choices have leaned heavily on action and sci-fi films; ironically, right around the time when those kinds of movies began relying less on star power than IP awareness. It’s probably no coincidence that the most successful endeavor he’s had in his later career is the Mission: Impossible series, based on the 60s American television spy show, that made its big-screen debut in 1996 with Cruise debuting his Ethan Hunt character and Brian DePalma directing.

The first film was a hit, and while DePalma departed the franchise, Cruise continued making future installments with notable directors like John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird that all bear their director’s signature touches. Somehow, the series continued to get better and better, as if Cruise and his team kept throwing out the bits that didn’t work in the previous installment and making the good parts better.

The series has had a resilient life at the box office as well, and perhaps in an age where the most prominent movies feature CGI superheroes and animated characters, a compelling, exciting spy serial built on movie stars, modern cinematography and old-school stunt work makes for effective counter-programming.

“Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” is the series’ fifth installment, now with Christopher McQuarrie at the helm, who previously directed Cruise in his 2012 “Jack Reacher” movie and written several projects for the star. McQuarrie brings a James Bond touch to the franchise; while the series has had prologues in the past, the introduction of “Rogue Nation” isn’t far removed from a 007 start. The locations, stylish formal clothing, and villain all have similar feels. The most significant Bond influence is felt in a new character Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a disavowed agent of the MI6 whose working relationship with terrorist organization the Syndicate leaves her loyalties in question.

Ilsa is the first female character in the film series who’s presented as equally intelligent, capable, and dangerous as Ethan, and their connection (and Ferguson’s contribution to it) improves the franchise. Likewise, Sean Harris, as Syndicate commander Solomon Lane proves to be a formidable opponent for the IMF team, skillfully staying one step ahead of the heroes at every turn. Alec Baldwin also joins the series as the CIA director who’s attempting to put the entire IMF organization on ice, arguing that Ethan’s past successes were merely luck despite his flagrant disregard for agency practices and reckless decisions. Therefore, the United States can’t continue gambling against the house.

It’s a great point. Lane’s well aware of Ethan’s past in the IMF, and often anticipates Ethan’s choices so much so that the hero starts second-guessing himself. The questions raised about the IMF’s actions throughout the movie don’t scratch very deep, but they are engaging enough to hold our attention between the action.

What impresses about McQuarrie’s “Rogue Nation” is the variety of action, conflicts, and tension that courses through the film. In each instance, whether it’s Ethan and Ilsa’s “meet cute” as they fight their way out of a torture basement, or Cruise racing his way through the hills of Morocco on a motorcycle, all of the stakes are clearly defined in a visually exciting way.

I’m still baffled why Cruise continues to focus on action films in his middle-aged years. My favorite Tom Cruise stretch was that period in the late 80s thru the 90s when he took on roles that played with the consequences and inner life of the looks and charm that made him famous. He’d be well suited at this stage of his career to star in more dramas, but whether it’s changes in the film industry or he’s not interested in doing that kind of work, few of these other projects have really received the same type of attention that the Mission: Impossible films have.

In any event, Cruise has steered the franchise to something unique for its era. As our other silver screen heroes become more extraordinary and unbeatable, the Mission: Impossible series becomes more grounded and real. We can’t lift a magic hammer to transport us to the other side of the galaxy, but while holding our breath underwater for three minutes sounds complicated, it’s doable. Maybe we can hold onto the side of a departing cargo plane after all. By continuing to focus on practical action sequences, Cruise’s approach to the series makes the impossible look possible.

The Weekend: While there’s a couple of great movies still left to recognize during the late summer, this is historically the last weekend of the season to release major action films that make an impression on audiences. Two other pure action movies of note during this week are 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” from Paul Greengrass, and 2019’s “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” from David Leitch. I really enjoy the original Bourne trilogy, which features Matt Damon playing an amnesiac assassin on the run from his past. Director Greengrass took over the series in its second installment, 2004’s “The Bourne Supremecy,” which solidified a new visual style of action featuring fast martial arts movement and kinetic editing. Some people divisively refer to the method as “shakycam;” I personally think the movies are exciting and unique for that reason, but the conversation is just controversial enough that it made me lean toward the more traditional action of “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” for more universal appeal. Truthfully, choosing between these two movies is a coin flip for me, as they both have potent elements in the genre.

Meanwhile, “Hobbs & Shaw” is OK, but considering it has three leading stars oozing charism with Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, and Idris Elba, and director Leitch also helmed “John Wick,” it’s not the home run it should have been. Besides, it’s much easier to make a case for the original “John Wick,” which opened in the fall.

Another strong contender is James Gunn’s “The Guardians of the Galaxy” from 2014, which became the first space-focused movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, introduced several unknown characters (even to comic fans!) to a vast new audience, and is one of the best films of the franchise. It has a lot of the things I like in selecting picks for the Ultimate Movie Year: It’s an audience pleaser, has a distinctive voice and style worthy of recognition, is one of the best films of its genre, and, well, I really like the Marvel movies. Still, our challenge is limiting ourselves to one entry per franchise. As good as “Guardians” is, Marvel has come to rule the first weekend of May in the modern era, so it just feels right to slot that week for the franchise because of how much it has dominated since 2008. The other Marvel movie of the weekend is … (checks notes) 1986’s “Howard the Duck?” Alright, let’s move on.

While we’re on the topic of bombs, let’s quickly note the opening of “Gigli” in 2003 and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in 1992, although at least the later spawned a fantastic seven-season television series.

If you want to focus on a family film here, there’s a couple of quality options to choose from. 1995’s “Babe” from director Chris Noonan features a farm pig who wants to be a sheepdog and is a beautiful children’s storybook come to life. It was a hit at the box office and became one of the few movies rated G that was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Another animal-starring flick opened two years later, as Disney’s “Air Bud” gave us the origin of a basketball-playing dog. It is one of the many, many movies rated G that did not land a Best Picture nomination, but it did spawn a mini-industry of sequels and spin-offs of animals playing other sports. So there’s that.

In addition to funny animals, Disney is also in the young-star-making-business, as evidenced by two of its late summer hits. A young Lindsay Lohan made her feature film debut, twice, with the 1998 “The Parent Trap” remake, and went on to headline two other notable comedies, 2003’s “Freaky Friday” and 2004’s “Mean Girls” before tabloid gossip and personal issues derailed a promising career. On the other hand, Anne Hathaway fared much better after debuting in 2001’s “The Princess Diaries” with Julie Andrews. Hathaway made a couple of sequels then moved into mostly dramatic work that earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2013. Investing in the stock futures of child actress is a high stakes game, people.

As good as “Rogue Nation” is, you could argue it’s not even the best Tom Cruise option to select here. He’s a movie star that has seemed ageless so long that it’s almost hard to believe his breakout role came in 1983’s “Risky Business,” where he played a high school senior who connects with a prostitute (Rebecca De Mornay) and turns his house into a brothel while his parents are on vacation. “Risky Business” is one of those solid movies that studios don’t seem to have much of an appetite for these days, but you can’t deny the star presence of Cruise, particularly in the iconic scene where he, sans pants, dances alone in the house to the music of Bob Segar’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.” It’s a film that was high on my personal draft choices for the weekend, along with “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “The Guardians of the Galaxy,” and “Babe.” Another Cruise movie, 1988’s “Cocktail,” was released here, but its tale of bottle-flipping bartenders hasn’t aged nearly as well as its star.

2006 saw the release of “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” with director Adam McKay and stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. As funny as it is, I like “Step Brothers” more.

Let’s also acknowledge the release of two classic films, 1953’s “From Here to Eternity” and 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night,” both of which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in their respective years. While “Eternity” has the famous scene of a bare-chested Burt Lancaster making out with Deborah Kerr in the waves on a beach, the more interesting picture is “In the Heat of the Night,” as a visiting cop played by Sidney Poitier is drawn into a murder mystery and the racial politics of the deep South. Fortunately, the Ultimate Movie Year has two visionary films that tackle the complexities of racism with “Get Out” and “Do the Right Thing.”

To close out the column, let’s also shout-out several cult films and dark horse picks, including 1981’s “Night Shift” and “An Officer and a Gentleman,” 1985’s “Fright Night” and “Weird Science,” 1987’s “The Lost Boys,” 1989’s “Parenthood” and “sex, lies, and videotape,” 2004’s “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” and 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

Next Week: Unforgiven

Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on August 2, 2019.

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Mark Ciemcioch

Mark Ciemcioch

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