Sunday 16 August 2015

Some shall sleep: "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation"

Tom Cruise is now fifty-two years old, yet he insists on comporting himself in the manner of a small child at a garden party doing his darnedest to attract the grown-ups' attention. "Hey, look ma, I'm clinging onto the side of the world's tallest building." "Yes, Tom, I can see you." "Hey, ma, now I'm jumping onto the wing of a moving plane." "Yes, Thomas." "Ma! Look! I'm about to plunge several hundred feet into a fully operational hydroelectric dam." "Oh Tom, do calm down. You'll come a terrible cropper one of these days." In Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Cruise is being egged on by the writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who somehow failed to produce anything of note with the same star on 2012's Jack Reacher (material that, going on book sales alone, should have been eminently franchiseable) and who now gets the fallback gig of steering this star through the fifth film in his most enduring series.

Again here, however, the material feels both overworked and underpowered: McQuarrie and his co-writer Drew Pearce have tried and failed to circumvent the common stand-up complaint that, after four of these things, no mission can really be considered impossible. By way of compensation, the new film upscales Ethan Hunt's adventures: it swanks from the US to the UK and Europe, and briefly repairs to the sweltering heat of Casablanca (where Tom arrives in a perfectly tailored, peacock-blue suit, and you just think: well, he's never going to feel the benefit in that), displaying throughout all the dutiful, heel-dragging obligation of a major Hollywood talent undertaking yet another three-month publicity tour. (It's write what you know, writ larger than ever.)

It's been twenty years since Brian de Palma's reboot of the TV series, and we've never seemed so far away from that film's extended B-movie aesthetic: the surest sign of blockbuster bloat comes with an early, twenty-minute assassination sequence set during a performance of Turandot at the Vienna State Opera, which offers around six different shooters, some 200-plus angles, and next to no thrill whatsoever. The reprisal of "Nessun Dorma" on the soundtrack at various points throughout Rogue Nation indicates McQuarrie's ambition to push this franchise into the realm of grand, operatic drama, but that's very hard to achieve when you've got an immortal for a leading man, and in the absence of anything like emotion. (Brad Bird, in fourth instalment Ghost Protocol, had the better idea of treating Mission: Impossible as if it were a gravity-defying cartoon.)

Nothing here flows; we're basically watching a series of modules that could have been assembled by any number of assistant directors. In one, we get Cruise and Simon Pegg, now effectively second lead after wooing the Comic-Con masses, but stuck doing serious face for much of the running time; in Washington, we find Alec Baldwin and Jeremy Renner, doing sports-casual gravitas in an attempt to position the franchise as a dark, smart, serious post-Skyfall proposition; by way of bad guys, we have Rebecca Ferguson (rather boring as a nonsense double agent character labouring under the poundstore Bondname of Ilsa Faust) and Sean Harris, a fine actor picking up a well-deserved paycheque who nevertheless finds he can't do anything much with a half-dozen scenes of token villainy. (Yes, he shoots one of his own henchman.) For these things to function, you feel we need someone who might pose a credible threat to Cruise's presence and status, much as Philip Seymour Hoffman did in the third movie.

The setpieces soon begin to seem less like dramatic peaks than distraction from the absence of real drama anywhere else on screen; your eyes can't help but go to Tom waving his arms and shouting "look at me" because everything around him is fundamentally inert. Yet while we're meant to thrill to the leading man's displays of bravery, tenacity and derring-do - look, he's still holding onto the wing of that plane as it takes off! - they're becoming increasingly neutralised both by repetition and by the safety net that franchise filmmaking provides. Post-Collateral, how many risks has Cruise (so outstanding in 1999's Magnolia, and reliably funny in comedy) actually taken with his star persona? Every flop - 2010's Knight and Day, the Reacher movie - has sent this actor scuttling back to the comfort of the M:I franchise, with the aim of extracting more love and money from the masses.

As for McQuarrie, he once succeeded in diverting us, twenty years ago in The Usual Suspects, with no more than words and the opportunities they afforded actors. Two decades on, he's doubtless a richer man, yet there are clear signs that his screenwriting has suffered for it: even a rookie scribe might have cause to look askance at a line like "Ethan Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny," which Baldwin's growl has singularly failed to sell audiences around the globe upon. You could take it as an indication that these movies no longer need a cohesive screenplay to succeed at the box office, just a lavish itinerary, a succession of stamped overseas shooting permits, and the right combination of insurance forms to ensure your leading man can throw himself about in such a way to make column inches. "But ma, look!" Yes, Tom.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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