How ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’ Perfected The Action Sequel Format

     December 25, 2015


“Has Hollywood completely run out of original ideas?” So goes the old refrain, a common lament from film fans tired of seeing the same concept repackaged and sold as new product. And it’s understandable why — just look at the irksome YA trend of splitting a single narrative into two films, a blatant cashgrab that leads to splintered storytelling and films that intrinsically lack payoff. As much as I love The Hunger Games, you can call it Mockingjay: Part 2 all you want, the truth is we’re getting The Hunger Games 3: Part 2 — a sequel of a sequel, a half-narrative.

Here we are in 2015, and it’s no stretch to imagine Jaws 19 headlining the cineplex as Robert Zemeckis joked in Back to the Future 2. What was intended as comedy through hyperbole has become more or less the truth of our cinematic landscape. Sequelitis is so pervasive it’s taken over TV as well in the form of the revival series — The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Full House, hell, even Coach — all resurrected on the basis of that beloved IP, the household name that guarantees an audience.


Image via Paramount Pictures

So, yeah, It’s easy to understand why audiences are tired, why 22 Jump Street demonstrates a self-awareness that has Nick Offerman kicking off a sequel with an anti-sequel tirade, why we spout off the same complaints year after year, sounding like a collective Jud Crandall. “Sometimes dead is better,” we say.

But sequels are not the problem. Sequels can be exceptional. We all know this — Aliens, The Godfather 2, Terminator 2 — all commonly cited examples of follow-ups that matched, and some would argue, improved on their predecessors. Sequels provide the opportunity for world-expansion, refinement, and evolution. It’s just that they too often miss the mark. An uninspired sequel can become cacophonous entertainment — “bigger and better” translating to “louder and dumber”. Each subsequent movie ripped from the pages of the previous film’s playbook, a diluted copy of what once was a winning formula.

But if we are forced to sit through, let’s say, the Taken sequels, we are also rewarded with enduring, ever-evolving franchises like Fast and Furious and Mission: Impossible, the later of which delivered one of the all-time great action sequels when it hit theaters last weekend.

As a side note, let me take a moment here to explain why I won’t be discussing Mad Max: Fury Road – the greatest action sequel of the year, and indeed one of the greatest action films ever made. The two films are simply not comparable. To put it in the simplest way I can think of, Mission: Impossible 5 was going to happen no matter who was at the helm, Fury Road would never have existed without the vision and determination of George Miller. Rogue Nation is an exceptional sequel that was mandated as a part of a franchise industry, Fury Road is a miracle.


Image via Paramount

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the fifth installment in the nearly 20-year running franchise, has reached the zenith of what these films can achieve. Writer-Director Christopher McQuarrie approached the material with a studious and inventive mentality, respecting all that came before him, honoring the franchise tropes — the identity-transforming face masks, high-tech gadgetry, a series of impenetrable security checks — while putting his distinct twist on the material. In the case of the iconic self-destructing message, McQuarrie managed to invert the trope without veering into meta territory.

A key factor in why Mission: Impossible has consistently turned out excellent sequels while so many other franchises fall on their faces is because they allow each new director to bring their unique sensibilities and aesthetics to the drawing board. And while the last three MI films have all been great, McQuarrie has raised the game, delivering a film that is not only an exceptional sequel, but the best Mission: Impossible film to date. McQuarrie is the first to truly blend those diverse single-film universes together into one movie that feels like the ultimate distillation of the franchise.

In the 20 years since Mission: Impossible came out, audience expectations for an action film have changed drastically. A look at the year’s major franchise sequels reveals a lot. To put it bluntly, we expect fuckton more crash-bang action sequences than we did 20 years ago. Look at Fast and Furious, which essentially began as a domestic drama with street races, and compare it with what we have now — skydiving motorcades, car crash spanning three skyscrapers, a multitude of knockdown-dragouts. Look at Terminator, which again, began as a thriller with action elements and compare it to Genisys — if you dare — equipped with flipping busses and machine guns galore. And of course, look at Mission: Impossible, a franchise that started in the hands of paranoid thriller auteur Brian De Palma and has evolved over the years into the bridge-exploding, Kremlin-demolishing franchise we know today. The first Mission Impossible film is remarkably low on action until the climatic final set-piece, which features Tom Cruise hanging on the side of a high speed train, a helicopter hot in pursuit, and lasts in total approximately 5 minutes. In Rogue Nation, Tom Cruise hangs off the side of plane within the first 5 minutes. As an audience we demand more action; sooner, longer and with more frequency.


Image via Paramount

McQuarrie’s genius in Rogue Nation is to deliver on that expectation while subverting it at the same time. His film’s signature stunt is over before the narrative has even begun. He’s essentially having his cake and eating it too. McQuarrie’s exceptional set-piece in the Vienna Opera House, perhaps the classiest moment in the franchise to date, is a perfect blend of all the elements that have defined the franchise over the years. The tense spycraft of Mission Impossible, the hand-to-hand combat introduced in MI2, the explosions and gunplay of MI3, the Rube-Goldberg mechanized choreography of Ghost Protocol – all executed with McQuarrie’s singular gift for clarity of geography. Never once in the nearly half-hour sequence do we lose track of where our myriad players are located in relation to each other. As such, the stakes are always clearly defined, the tension always at a peak.

McQuarrie also knows how to mix up the action. In a brave bit of structural genius, McQuarrie spends nearly the entire second act of the film switching from set-piece to set-piece — an elaborate underwater heist immediately followed directly by a breathless, break-neck car chase, which is immediately followed by a hard-hitting motorbike chase. This could easily be exhausting. It could become the mind-numbing boomfest of the Transformers sequels. Rogue Nation‘s action-packed second act borders on insanity, but McQuarrie pulls it off by making each segment distinct. No two set-pieces repeat themselves — even two back-to-back high-speed chases.

He also keeps things interesting by putting Ethan through a hell of a beating.  Our current entertainment landscape inundated with superheroes and superhumans, but Ethan Hunt remains staggeringly human. When Ethan escapes the Vienna Opera House, his repelling rig crashes to the ground behind him seconds later. When he is resuscitated from drowning, merely moments before diving into the next action sequence, he doesn’t charge off into the action without incurring the damage, he staggers onto the next round with a begrudging diligence. Rogue Nation is a tactile film. Ethan takes the hits and we are allowed to feel them.


Image via Paramount

In the past each MI film has brought in a new director, a new mission, a new villain and — excepting Ving Rhames — a new supporting cast. Each Mission Impossible film has essentially been both a sequel and a reboot, a self-contained entity that rarely bleeds into other installments. This is yet another area in which Rogue Nation takes the sequel to the next level. As it always has been, Ethan Hunt, our beloved Tom Cruise avatar, remains the central focus of the action, but McQuarrie has culled the fan-favorites from the franchise history — Ving Rhames’ Luther, Simon Pegg‘s Benji, and Jeremy Renner‘s Brandt — allowing them to play critical roles in the film alongside Ethan. For the first time, Mission Impossible is an ensemble picture.

What this offers the audience is a bit of the interconnected world-building we’re so fond of in today’s shared-universe dominated environment. Before now, the MI films have always been “The Ethan Hunt Show” with a rotating cast of characters (though in some cases, like MI3‘s Zhen Lei and Declan, the word “character” is a bit of a stretch), which amount to nothing more than a series of interchangeable faces that facilitate Ethan’s missions. By bringing back characters we know, McQuarrie has given Mission Impossible heart. Rogue Nation is about friendship. What would you do for your friends? How much would you sacrifice to save them? And in that shift, the tension skyrockets exponentially because the stakes become instantly relatable. Hunt’s teammates have died before, and no doubt will die again, but when Benji is in jeopardy we really feel it. We’ve had time to learn to love Benji (admittedly Simon Pegg makes that easy). These characters are no longer just filler.

Finally, one cannot properly praise the ways in which trumped the stagnant sequel without discussion the character of Ilsa Faust. McQuarrie deserves heaps of credit for delivering in an area that so few films have succeeded this year – and none of the previous Mission Impossible films have before – he’s crafted an exceptional female character that holds her own in a franchise that is not hers. Rebecca Furgusen‘s Ilsa Faust is Ethan’s equal in every way. In fact, Rogue Nation is arguably her film. She kicks ass, she excels at spycraft, and she’s never made into an outright love interest. There are hints, moments, but that gloriouslysly never becomes the point of her character. There’s even a moment regarding her shoes that left me clapping in the theater, almost as if it was designed as a counter to Jurassic World‘s embarrassing affection for high heels.


Image via Paramount Pictures

The M:I franchise has never been great with women. In Mission: Impossible, Emmanuel Beart‘s Claire was a would-be femme fatale with no arc to speak of. Thandie Newton‘s Nyah got the worst of it in Mission Impossible 2, a staggeringly sexist film in which she is ogled and undercut at every possible turn. Keri Russell and Michelle Monaghan fared slightly better in MI3, though both are eventually reduced to either a plot point or a MacGuffin, respectively. Even Paula Patton‘s badass IMF Agent Carter in Ghost Protocol is subject to an unnecessary kiss — a tacked-on moment so we never forget that Ethan is a sex symbol. At long last, with Ilsa Faust, Mission Impossible has given a female character the ability to truly play alongside the boys. Jeremy Renner’s Agent Brandt was supposedly introduced in Ghost Protocol as a potential replacement headliner should Cruise opt to retire from the franchise. In truth, if that should come to pass, Ilsa would be their best bet. She is not a “female Ethan Hunt”, but she is a female on Ethan Hunt’s level – commanding, capable, compelling, Ilsa is what the future of the female action hero should look like.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is a product of its time in the best way possible. It’s packed with nearly act-long set pieces that never risk redundancy. It invests in world-building, engaging with the universes created in the preceding installments. It allows for a woman to take center stage, never fearing that she’ll steal Ethan’s spotlight, but allowing them to share it gracefully.  For all our complaining about the stagnancy of the film industry, McQuarrie and Cruise have elegantly proved that sequels are not the problem.

Note: This article was originally published at a prior date, but in an effort to highlight Collider’s great original content, we’ve bumped it up to the front page.


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