Like a great musical number, a great action sequence enchants with technique. Gradual momentum, focused combat, and using the camera as a vessel to command the movement generates impressive scenes and holds the audience at the edge of their seat. Not many franchises can pull it off — and not many can keep it consistently getting better like the Mission: Impossible franchise.
Working like a revolving door for great action directors, the series is refreshing because it puts a new facade on a familiar face. Whether it is De Palma, Woo, Abrams, or Bird, the franchise has found a way to keep moving forward with a similar model, but reinventing itself with altered aesthetics.
This time around it is Christopher McQuarrie in the driver’s seat, who impressed with his action directing in the brutally underrated Jack Reacher. McQuarrie has a sense of the movement happening in the sequence and is able to use the camera to follow the action rather than dictate it — a lesson most action or blockbuster directors haven’t learned.
This pairs well with the film’s star, Tom Cruise, because he demands this kinetic action or at least has favored it in his last few films (Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow). This old school effect seems like something simple to do, but without the deft hand of someone who understands the technique, it comes out false and uninspired.
McQuarrie is someone who does understand and there isn’t a better example than the sequence where Ethan Hunt (Cruise) goes to the Vienna Opera in order to stop the assassination of an Austrian diplomat. Across the room sits Benji (Simon Pegg), who is working in a different space against a bruiting guard, and above him sits Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) staring down the barrel of a sniper with the diplomat in sight.
Hunt is there looking for “the Syndicate” — an organization run by a rogue British agent who is trying to take down Hunt’s employer or the IMF. Instead of turning the moment into a shoot-out, McQuarrie plays the scene quietly while also creating a sustained explosion of action set pieces all happening simultaneously.
The music begins, the scene is aided by Turandot and Nessun Dorma, and what stands out is how the director knows to have multiple pieces all working in unison alongside the song. Cruise is adept at hand to hand combat and carries that Harrison Ford-like quality of being able to throw his body around like a rag doll and still get up with enough energy to finish the job.
McQuarrie is able to continue the momentum into the highways of Morocco, giving us a motorcycle chase that seems akin of the early films, but with a keen eye for what is happening on screen and the ability to make it seem present and dire.
It is a tough line to walk when you offer a film and plot that hinges on such implausible story points, but McQuarrie is able to ground the Mission: Impossible series thanks to a villain that at least poses somewhat of a threat to Cruise and the performance by Ferguson as Ilsa that steals the show right out from under its giant star.
Ferguson never acts like she is a supporting player or just there for appearance. She is “one of the boys” and is beating them at their own game. It is refreshing to see a female action character that doesn’t have to prove herself or become an item of affection in order to aid the plot. Instead, Ferguson’s Ilsa is Hunt’s equal and she uses her sexuality and body to throw him off her trail rather than promote an unnecessary and throwaway relationship. Sure, there is sexual tension between the two, but it seems like Hunt is more attractive to her qualities as an agent rather than seeing her as just another broad in a nice dress.
Rogue Nation is an exercise in quality, old school action filmmaking and shows that Christopher McQuarrie is a director with a voice that needs to be heard more often. It has brains in its moves and emotions in its plot, but mainly it reminds you that action’s past can work just as well in the present as it did before.