Mission Improbable: Middling Production
The worst thing about movies that are middle of the road is how very little there is to comment on them. I’ve just seen the new Mission Impossible and it’s neither good nor bad. It’s the Schroedinger’s Cat of action-spy movies. It’s basically the white noise of day-to-day living. I was not offended or irate with squandered potential while watching it nor was I so enraptured that a gorilla could have broken into the theatre and danced before the screen without me noticing.
It’s standard. It’s banal. It’s safe. It is a movie which exists and one that I had watched. It’s one that within a few weeks time I’ll have wholly forgotten and it makes writing about it even now an ever increasingly difficult task as its nuances and pieces disappear like a humdrum dream before waking.
So what can I say of it? Well, let’s start with the good. I love spy movies and I enjoy action. I have no qualms about a mixture of science fiction into these genres as I’m an avid James Bond fan despite recognizing that most of them are pretty rubbish. Mission Impossible has never really gone through the tonal shifts that the Bond franchise has faced and thus it’s campiness is somewhat expected at this point. I’m prepared for that and it doesn’t phase me one bit.
Perhaps the most surprising element of Rogue Nation is just how good Rebecca Ferguson is. More to the point, the handling of her character–Ilsa Faust–is surprisingly well handled. We’re in 2015, so it really shouldn’t be necessary to applaud a female representation in a movie that is both as capable and complex as the leading male. In many ways, Ilsa is a more interesting character than Ethan Hunt who, after four prior Mission Impossible movies has about as much character development left in him as Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again. In fact, I would have placed Ilsa as the most compelling element of the movie if her role hadn’t been so blatantly spoiled in the pre-showing marketing blitz that ruins and sort of ambiguity which the script writer and direct strove agonizingly to achieve. However, she doesn’t really get into any situations that necessitate Tom Cruise to come swinging in to her rescue nor does she fall head over heels in love with him either by the end credit crawl. We’re in Mad Max: Fury Road territory with this type of character and not only is it refreshing but it’s also surprisingly comfortable as well. It never once comes across as weird or contrived that a woman can be just as effective as a spy or a character. There isn’t any fanfare or grand standing over it. Ilsa is just a woman that happens to be damn good at her job and nothing more.
Outside of Ferguson’s portrayal, what else was there good about the movie? It had a number of excellent set pieces that, as contained events, were well executed. The primary beat is the opera scene. There’s a wonderful balance between executing a covert operation while juggling between the action between two characters while still building tension through the masterful weaving of the increasing drama on the stage. I’d say this scene was really stand-out if it didn’t join a oddly long list of good opera scenes in otherwise unremarkable to bad movies.
Seriously, what is it about the opera? Quantum of Solace’s only really interesting scene was at the opera. Downing Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes had a good opera scene as well in that otherwise atrocious sequel. Hell, even video games have really well crafted opera moments as in Final Fantasy VI. I can’t help but feel that this conceit is the film version of photographing flowers: impossible to screw up.
The opera aside, however, there was a good Morocco chase scene and heist beat that worked quite well. Oddly enough, Rogue Nation has the opposite issue as the preceding Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Whereas the previous film had an incredibly engaging beginning and utterly dreadful second half, Rogue Nation starts off as a snore and gradually picks up into being half decent by the end.
So that about sums up the good. What about the bad?
Well, it’s kind of boring.
And this is why I struggle with Rogue Nation. Sitting and analysing it is a rather difficult task. Not because I can’t pinpoint its flaws. Outside of Ilsa Faust, there’s woefully little interesting characterization amongst the primary IMF squad and its supporting characters. Simon Pegg and the others feel too much like they’re going through the motions and Alec Baldwin and the whole “going rogue” story arc adds nothing to the story. Even the quips are rather feeble and few as though the writers simply could not think of anything good to set up. The antagonist’s plot makes very little sense with Solomon Lane receiving inadequate attention until the last act of the movie and by then there’s been far too much contradictory behaviour to really pull together the muddied justifications for all the scenes leading up to it. Generally speaking, criticism of why something doesn’t work takes far longer than praising things that do, so I’m not going to quibble over all the little details for why Rogue Nation falls apart.
No, more than anything I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of deja vu while watching the film. Rogue Nation felt very much like Skyfall, both in its successes and failures. In noticing the similar issues, I couldn’t help but reflect on the genre as a whole. And I’ve mentioned before how the spy genre has been sort of teetering on irrelevancy for awhile but its only with Rogue Nation that I feel we begin to see why.
The face of the world has changed. The spy genre essentially was born as artistic propaganda during the Cold War when a battle was fought without tanks and soldiers. All that espionage and covert missions made sense in a world where enemies were smuggling missiles into ideologically antagonistic neighbouring nations and threatening things like a mutually assured destruction with nuclear warheads. We had an atmosphere were two super powers were butting heads in as roundabout a method as possible. They were akin to fencers, poking and prodding for a weakness in their opponent’s defence but too worried that full committal to a forward assault would leave both of them eliminated upon the other’s sword.
And then the Cold War ended but not through sabotage or heroic warfare that could be milked for untold number of war stories. No, the Cold War ended with the incredibly boring and film unfriendly collapse of an economy.
This has left a rather large void in the espionage genre. That ideological battle between America and the Soviet Union was far too easy to distil down into distinct sides. You had the “Good” and “Democratic” versus the “Evil” and “Communistic.” Very little nuance was afforded in these situations. Look at James Bond. All the opponents he face are irrevocably evil. More than that, their aims are always the same–to take over the world. This encapsulates the fear of the Cold War: of the ideology of socialism and communism defeating capitalism and democracy. As one side, it was so much easier to paint the other in shallow, broad strokes. The Russians became synonymous with evil. Western powers and America were inherently good.
But politics have changed and things aren’t so easy now. The troubles we face are harder to so easily dismiss with a wave of our hand. Our enemies aren’t great, unified super powers. They’re underground cells. They’re rebel forces. They’re misguided or brainwashed individuals from poor nations lashing out in all directions. Suddenly, this isn’t two opponents of equal skill. It’s more like a trouble child getting beat up by an adult. Not to mention, it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the potential exploitative motivations of said adult in their meddling of others affairs. Those simple black and whites have become incredibly tangles shades of grey.
You would think this atmosphere would be perfect for spy movies, though. This is the perfect environment for when intelligence networks would be the most useful. You can’t tell clearly who is your enemy and who is not. An ally today could be a rival tomorrow and sometimes you’d have to accumulate debts with historical antagonists in order to accomplish the goals of the present. There’s a wonderful world of nuance and ambiguity that those who “work amongst the shadows” would need to thrive.
And yet, these movies don’t work. Skyfall had this problem. Rogue Nation has this problem. I speak specifically of the “going rogue” issue and the question of what the old vanguard divisions serve in a world that has completely flipped the script. Skyfall and Rogue Nation both put their respective main branches up towards a bureaucratic committee sceptical of their need. And both struggle to explore this conceit to any adequate degree.
It isn’t a concept that is undoable, however. I think the issue arises that it’s more a concept that is incompatible with what worked before. Just as the nature of our world has changed, the way we explore espionage in our media has to change with it. Instead, we have these studios trying to cram these old pegs into rusted and warped holes that no longer accommodate them. And I’m not certain that a film can adequately explore this thought. It might be too long for the cinema. It might be too complex.
Because, let’s face it, if you have to chop up half your movie into required chases, explosions and gun fights, you’re not going to be able to do a modern spy story any justice. The action portion of the spy-action genre is really sucking whatever value we could get out. We need simple plots and short hands to communicate how bad the bad guys are so that Ethan Hunt can spend all his time shooting them in the face without there being any messy morality brought in. It’s no wonder that all the villains for the last while have been amorphous, faceless “terrorists” often of an inoffensive variety. The Bourne Trilogy was lucky that it could frame its nemesis as the American CIA itself. But Bond and Hunt haven’t been so blessed and we keep getting more contrived enemies by the day for them to tackle.
At its heart, this genre is a narrative driven one so we need compelling enemies for our heroes to face otherwise the whole package starts to fall apart. Solomon Lane and Raoul Silva tried a similar tactic as Bourne with rogue elements that are the foil to our heroes but ones that have gone bad. Neither ever really get the attention they require to pull off their role, however. As I mentioned Sean Harris doesn’t get any real motivation to his character until the last final scenes and even then it’s never really made clear why he’s doing what he’s doing. Has he decided to go rogue just to be an independent dick? Is he trying to steer the world to a better place but being the decider of where that should be without bureaucratic senators who only care about their tribalistic agendas? Does he just want to make loads of money?
In some regards, Silva in Skyfall worked better because at least it was made abundantly clear that he was in it solely to ruin M. The failings of that movie was not making the whole story built around that motivation and instead wandering amongst a bunch of random set pieces that spent way too much time on Bond without saying anything. And here we are again, in Rogue Nation, watching motorcycles explode and assassinations in theatres without there being any reason, motive or message.
It’s hard to not see these products as the flounderings of ageing executives desperate to strike a relevant cord with its audience and world but being so out of touch that they don’t know what to strike. In a way, they reflect the same general unease and uncertainty that the world faces. They’re looking around desperate for villains but finding only people like them staring back.
There’s an identity crisis here and I feel it’s more telling that the story around the shortcomings of these films is more interesting than the films themselves.