Saturday, August 15, 2015

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

(Christopher McQuarrie, USA, 2015)

Fun, and self-consciously so, but still disappointingly bland.  There's a strange inconsistency in the film, which ping-pongs between witty, energetic action, and clunky, rote deployment of story (character is jettisoned with a sigh of relief.)  McQuarrie is an intelligent, visually acute director, and he's a screenwriter with an unusually strong knack for dramatic structure, and in several scenes, his skills are clearly on display.  But for every good, fun sequence, there is another that's marked by its clumsiness.  I've long thought that McQuarrie had enormous potential, and The Way of the Gun remains a mostly unsung masterpiece.  It was his first film as director, and it showed a bravado, a willingness to mix genres with wit and humor, and a remarkably solid command of tone.  He was more or less exiled as a director when it failed to do well enough at the box office, and he's been climbing his way back ever since.

Jack Reacher was his audition to make this latest installment of the MI franchise, and although it didn't do particularly good business, it was successful enough to get him the job.  McQuarrie proved that he could do action, and do it well (although he had already more than proved that with his first film), or at least well enough to please Cruise Inc.  And like Reacher, McQuarrie here trades on the inherently silly and overused aspects of the genre, playing the story for maximum fun, a kind of giddy throwback to an earlier, less self-serious era of action filmmaking.  It's a welcome response, if nothing else, to the absurdly dour direction that the Bond franchise has taken.  But fun and wit only go so far, and they clearly don't go far enough for McQuarrie, who you can feel growing bored with the conventions of this movie, even as he goes through the motions with commendable good humor.  There are some good jokes, but several others aren't more than half-hearted feints at levity.  And sometimes the arch, winking nature of the direction, which is always quick to remind the audience that everybody is having fun - Cruise, McQuarrie, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson (who has the most depth out of anyone, acting and character-wise, although that's not saying much as far as it goes - nonetheless, she's terrific) Jeremy Renner, etc - trips over itself, and becomes merely awkward.  It's as if McQuarrie was unsure about how silly he was allowed to make the derivative stuff, and winds up delivering the necessary exposition and plot mechanics with a half-apologetic tone:  "I know you've seen this fucking scene twenty times before, but just bear with us - Cruise is going to be running again in like a minute."

So despite all the energetic antics, it still feels somewhat exhausted.  Only in the set-pieces - the Opera-house melee, the motorcycle chase, the underwater infiltration - does the movie really come alive.  This is no great complaint, after all; it's a silly action movie.  But the big lesson of the summer is that it needn't be thus.  Mad Max taught us that.  Cruise may be running as fast as ever, and doing stunt after breathtaking stunt, but the rest of the time, he's matching McQuarrie in idleness.  His whole performance, or at least the non-stunt parts, is a basically mugging.  It's funny the first time, and then the second time it feels like, ha-ha, this again, and then by the seventh or eighth time he does that little half-grin with the head tilted 30 degrees, it just becomes kind of bizarre.  This is a movie full of talented, hardworking people who could be doing much, much better.  And even so, it's not bad for an air-conditioned two hours.

*The most remarkable thematic element of the film is in the suggestion that the United States spy culture is hopelessly ruthless and corrupt, and one ought to show no loyalty to contemporary institutions of state power.  Nationalism is a sham, basically.  Not an entirely new idea, as far as spy movies go, but it was still a bit jarring and actually a little refreshing to see in this context.  The real loyalty, the movie makes explicit, is owed to those you care about and love.  This is not exactly radical, but its nonetheless bracing in a movie of this kind, where there is usually at least a perfunctory nod towards the essential rectitude of Big Government.  Not here.

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