So, Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation is out at cinemas now. It’s the fifth entry in the running, jumping, shooting, falling, and spying action movie series that’s spanned two decades at this point. Chances are you might have skipped a couple of the four previous ones. If you didn’t skip Mission:Impossible 2, well…I’m really sorry. Me neither.
Anyway before Limp Bizkit frantically warm up to slaughter the theme tune yet again let’s talk about what you need to know.
Firstly, Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise. Ethan is an interesting lead because he’s basically the last Cold War spy. Espionage fiction had a bit of a collective freakout in the 1990s when the Iron Curtain fell and Ethan and the later Bond movies both embody that. Bond dealt with it by killing Sean Bean, regenerating into Daniel Craig and completely changing the done-in-one nature of the movies. Mission:Impossible dealt with it by having Ethan do lots of really violent gymnastics.
You can see the exact trajectory of the genre’s course correction in these movies. The first, directed with caffeinated, dizzying glee by Brian De Palma is a straight up and down spy flick. It starts with Ethan disguised as a Russian secret police officer, takes in a disastrous job at an Embassy and revolves entirely around trying to secure a list of every undercover agent in the field. It’s Le Carre with added helicopter fights, Bond with less quipping.
The sequel completely ignores the team dynamic, gives Ethan a ‘90s action hero wig and proceeds to try to be a John Woo movie. It doesn’t suit being a John Woo movie. John Woo doesn’t suit the subject matter. But regardless they just keep pounding away at it until it’s in a shape that loosely resembles the basic core concept just with way fewer agents, way more doves and a surprising amount of Capoeira. There’s a vague sense of confusion to the tone of the whole thing and it’s fairly unsurprising that the franchise was rested for a while after this entry.
If MI:2 is the post-Glaznost hangover then MI:3 is the reconstructed early ‘00s Vegan diet. This is the meatiest of the films to date and the one that gives Ethan the most to do. As the movie opens, he’s retired from the field and married. Have a guess how well that goes.
It’s much worse.
Just as Woo and these movies were an awful fit for each other, JJ Abrams is a perfect one. It opens at the end, the macguffin is literally a macguffin that no one knows the significance of and the entire thing fizzes with the exact manic spy energy that Alias had at its best. Even better, the idea of the IMF going after arms dealers and terrorist groups makes infinitely more sense than yet another bloody rogue agent, even though there’s one of those too.
Most importantly though, this is very much a mature, different Ethan who you actually care about. The floppy hair’s gone, he no longer looks terrifyingly like Captain America’s Chris Evans and the personal stakes mean you actually quite like the dude. He’s come in from the cold and the film makes you care both about that and his willingness to go back out into it.
Which is fortunate as everything in Ethan’s life has very much assumed the shape of pear by the time Ghost Protocol hits. His wife has been murdered, he’s serving time in a Russian prison and the IMF are being framed and disavowed en masse. With minimal resources, a panicked and divided team and no time, he’s forced to shift from being the furthest man from home to being the last man standing. There’s some interesting stuff in Ghost Protocol, including what seem to be echoes of a rumoured earlier script where Ethan is permanently injured out of active service. This being Cruise, Hollywood’s energizer bunny, that doesn’t stick but Ghost Protocol does neatly close the circuit with the original movie. This Ethan, and that one, are very much the same man; backs against the wall, blood in their mouth and an ace they lifted from the guy who beat them up in their back pocket.
So, there’s your perpetually running, hyper intense lead. What else do you need to know? Oh yeah!
His organization is riddled with corruption.
Seriously the Impossible Mission Force is like a YTS scheme for supervillains. Of the four movies to date, three have included rogue IMF agents as a principle plot point while the fourth has the entire organization accused of going rogue. This idea is what looks most intriguing about the fifth movie, Rogue Nation, too. The political fallout of two decades of the IMF churning out highly trained, ambitious sociopaths is finally coming home to roost and that level of consequence is something few action movie franchises bother with. Should be fun.
Especially as, after Ghost Protocol, the movies are definitely team sports rather than ‘one lone haircut’ affairs again. The Mission:Impossible premise has the idea of specialization baked in and one of the most fun elements of the original movie is seeing the team introduced and then reived asunder like over ripe corn on a hot day. 2 and 3 both tinker with the concept, but only do so in so far as there are agents other than Ethan in 2 (but never for very long) and in 3 his team actually get names AND a single personality trait each.
But by Ghost Protocol they actually get arcs of their own too. Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt gets the most to do but both Simon Pegg and Paula Patton get a decent chunk of screen time. Pegg’s wonderfully nervy Benji is always good fun and Patton’s Jane Carter is the most interesting female lead the series has had. The team muscle, she’s also the one closest to Ethan in terms of her arc, that’s best summed up by dropping to one’s knees in the middle of flaming wreckage and screaming ‘VENGEAAAAAANCE!’ at the uncaring heavens. Even better all four of those arcs (‘VENGEAAAAAANCE! x 2, redemption for Brandt and ‘Oh Sweet Jesus Let Me Live Through This’ for Benji) are folded into an immensely fun, resonating overall story that honors the basic premise even as it’s repeatedly kicking it over. It’s a really fun movie and I’m delighted to see Rogue Nation appears to be more of the same. Just, odds are, with even more running.
So there you go, Ethan, the amazingly flawed and broken organization that trained him and the few non-criminal agents it has versus evil, their own bosses and the Box Office. They’ll win of course but, odds are, in the most obtuse way possible. I can’t wait.