by Gabriel Valdez
Every once in a while, there’s an action movie you breathe your way out of as the credits roll. You’ve been smiling the last several minutes and maybe you hadn’t even realized you were holding your breath. You’re also charged – your adrenaline’s spiking and you feel like you could do a thousand ill-advised stunts just like the action heroes on screen did. The Matrix is the poster child of this post-movie syndrome. Millions of viewers in 1999 hoped that someone would try to engage them in a kung fu battle in the theater’s parking lot. The Bourne Ultimatum made us feel like we could race across rooftops and earlier this year, Mad Max: Fury Road made passengers across America shout for exhilarated drivers to stop hairpinning every turn as if they were being chased by post-apocalyptic Viking dune buggies.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is not just the best of the Mission: Impossible films, it’s also one of the better spy movies you may ever see. There are larger than life action sequences, but the film lives and breathes its complicated spy world like none of the other Mission: Impossible films have. Each movie in this series has been an action movie first and a spy movie second. Rogue Nation reverses this trend. It ramps up the film’s spy elements without losing the breakneck action. Moreover, there are fewer technological gimmicks – Rogue Nation is a film about play and counter-play, about plots buried within plots and the personalities behind them clashing and manipulating each other.
The hallmark of the Mission: Impossible franchise is getting to see nearly every element of a well-orchestrated plan go wrong at some point. The team has to adjust on the fly. Rogue Nation remembers this, but evokes it in some different ways.
As Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his spy agency the IMF are shut down by Congress, he has to pursue a burgeoning terrorist organization without much help. Where predecessor Ghost Protocol found mileage by pairing Cruise with Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt, Rogue Nation makes a riskier gambit. Cruise is paired with Simon Pegg’s Benji for a good portion of the film. Benji isn’t just there for comic relief; he’s an agent in his own right by this point. Pegg’s impeccable timing and irreverent attitude bring a fuller human being out of Cruise this time around. Pegg’s presence allows Cruise to be less perfect, more flawed. It’s an unexpectedly enjoyable screen pairing.
The previous “best” in the series, Ghost Protocol let the viewer into the chaos even as a plan unfolded. The tension in a spy sequence relied on how our heroes were going to find ways to help each other as everything around them broke down. Rogue Nation takes a different tack by hiding several characters’ real motivations from the viewer. The tension arises from how our heroes may find ways to betray each other. It’s a fun inversion that takes particular advantage of Jeremy Renner’s skill at being such a good wet blanket.
There are two big names to know here. The first is Rebecca Ferguson. She plays Ilsa Faust, who is Ethan’s equal as an agent. This isn’t the James Bond style of “equal,” meaning she’s equal insofar as it takes to turn her into a romantic conquest. No, she is essentially as good a fighter, as good a shot, as good a driver, and as clever a spy as Ethan is. She’s also the heart of the plot, something of a quadruple agent by the time the story’s done.
This brings up the second name: Christopher McQuarrie. He directed and wrote the screenplay. You may not know him, but he once won an Oscar for writing The Usual Suspects. It was a complex crime thriller with practical style and storytelling. For inspiration, Rogue Nation hearkens back to that practical style, as well as the first Mission: Impossible film. McQuarrie has a talent for creating incredibly complex and ever-evolving stories, but he uses considerable behind-the-scenes wizardry to present a classy, raw-yet-polished style that’s free of needless flash. Audiences can easily keep up with and enjoy the complicated spy shenanigans.
We may not all be Tom Cruise fans – there are things to admire and despise about the actor himself. If you’re going to watch any recent Tom Cruise movie, this is the one to see. There’s not much ego to the film. It’s also a Rebecca Ferguson and a Simon Pegg movie. While it’s a very good action film, it’s a truly thrilling spy movie. You probably won’t see anything else like it this year.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.
1. Does Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation have more than one woman in it?
Yes and no. Outside Rebecca Ferguson, there is a speaking role for Hermione Corfield, but the technically correct version of this question requires more than one named woman. Corfield plays “Record Shop Girl.” A few henchmen (but still not enough) are played by women, which is refreshing, and Jingchu Zhang plays Lauren, but her role is brief and I don’t think she’s ever named in the film, just on the IMDB page.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Moot point if the previous answer is a no.
This is an interesting one because it goes in all directions at once, both good and bad. Paula Patton and Maggie Q were sought to reprise their roles from the fourth and third movies, much as Renner, Pegg, and Ving Rhames reprise their roles. Patton couldn’t do it because of her lead role in the Warcraft movie, while Maggie Q was filming the lead role in the now-canceled TV show Stalker.
One can be informed by what happens behind-the-scenes – I can understand why they didn’t want to introduce additional team members beyond the ones we already know. At the same time, one also has to judge by what’s on the screen, and Rogue Nation fails the Bechdel Test pretty hard.
The Bechdel Test is part of an equation, not the whole thing. It’s refreshing to see a woman who’s neither a love interest nor a junior member to the team here. Ilsa being Ethan’s equal is stressed, and Ferguson carries the action scenes incredibly well across multiple fights. On the who-saves-who scorecard, Ethan comes out owing Ilsa pretty considerably.
The film does focus on Rebecca Ferguson scantily dressed in at least three scenes. There is some level of lusting the other direction, however, as Tom Cruise is presented to us shirtless and still in better shape than most of America. It’s certainly not equal lusting. The male gaze is served much more than the female gaze. I give credit to the film for not forcing a romance between the 31 year-old Ferguson and the 53 year-old Cruise. It could have diminished the notion that she’s his equal if done wrong (most films do this wrong), as well as disrespecting the narrative of Ethan’s own complicated, still-in-love-with Michelle Monaghan backstory from the third and fourth films.
Take all of that into account. Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa is my second favorite movie badass of any gender this year after Charlize Theron’s Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road. The difference is that Furiosa was allowed to be a badass without being sexualized according to the male gaze the way Ilsa is. It’s also awkward because, given her role in the film, Ilsa doesn’t need to be so sexualized.
The end result is something complicated: there’s a positively portrayed, talented, professional woman who can spy, fight, drive, and do all the things Tom Cruise does without having to fall for him. She’s his complete equal plot-wise, but not always according to the film’s camera. At times, she’s still hyper-sexualized in a way not necessitated by the plot but that serves the male gaze in the audience. I don’t find myself angry at Rogue Nation the way I am at some films that do this. Whether that’s because Ilsa is presented so equally otherwise, or because my opinion’s been compromised by the tendencies of my own gaze, it’s difficult to tell.
Trying to return Patton and Maggie Q along with the franchise’s other actors is a positive, but not one that shows up on screen or that can be communicated to most audiences. Regardless, ending up with so few women in the film is a big negative. That Ferguson’s Ilsa is presented so capably is a big positive. That Ferguson’s Ilsa is sexualized by the camera in a way that she isn’t by the plot or through her characterization is a negative. Given the state of the industry as a whole when it comes to women, do the negatives outweigh the positives? Given the lack of strong women characters, does having that one positive outweigh the negatives? This time, I can’t really tell. There’s a lot missing from Rogue Nation in the way of women, but what it does have in Ferguson’s Ilsa is missing from a lot of the industry. This section isn’t always meant for judgment, certainly not as much as it’s meant for information. If it were meant for judgment, I would find mine pretty obscured this time out.
Where did we get our awesome images? The feature image is from NY Daily News’ box office report. The topmost of Rebecca Ferguson throwing an elbow and the one with Jeremy Renner are from Slice of Sci-Fi’s review. Tom Cruise on a motorcycle comes from Forbes’ box office report. The last two images of Rebecca Ferguson come from the excellent Collider.