Ordinarily, by the time a film franchise reaches its fifth entry, it is what it is.
Tropes are established, expectations are set, and it all becomes a case of biggerbadderfastermore. But what happens if all of that begins to flag, and the formula feels tired before the story has played out?
The prevailing wisdom in Hollywood has been to reboot: To take everything back to formula with new talent and hope that new blood will quell the old problems. But if MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION is any indicator, it’s the weak who reboot: the strong ones just reload.
When an IMF mission sparks a government inquiry, the Impossible Missions Force is left with a lot to answer for. CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) has directly challenged the agency’s effectiveness and methods, enough so to have the entire roster shuttered and folded into the CIA.
While this conversation is going on, Ethan Hunt is in the field, trying to track down a counter-agent that seems to have detailed information on IMF and its agents. He is declared a rogue agent, and the screws are put to members of his team – namely William Brandt and Benji Dunn (Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg) to avow Hunt’s whereabouts. Even if they wanted to help Hunley and the CIA (which they don’t), they couldn’t: they don’t know where Hunt is.
Eventually that changes when Hunt closes in on hiscounter-agent – a man named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). After pulling Benji into the fray, Hunt looks to thwart a hit Lane has put out on the Austrain chancelor at the Vienna Opera House. But there’s a wrench – another counter agent named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is at the event, though her target is unclear.
Faust and Lane are part of a Rogue Nation – a league of disavowed agents from intelligence agencies the world over brought together to fuel chaos, disorder, and sell their skills to the highest bidder. They are, as Benji describes them, “An Anti-IMF”. The twist is that Lane is a double agent trying to weasel her way into Rogue Nation’s good graces. So it is that Hunt believes he can trust her enough to bring the counter-agency down.
But is his trust misplaced?
With the help of longtime IMF agent Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), Brandt is able to catch up with Hunt and get up to speed on the mission at hand. The question then becomes whether Hunt is actually good, or just lucky. How can he possibly manage to save the day with his own government giving chase, and unable to know who he can really count on?
On its own, ROGUE NATION is a fun night at the movies, but it’s how it symbolizes what the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise has become that makes it worth discussing.
The frustration for franchises like this is the way the characters within them seem to have no memory of events that have come before. Remember that time a bullet train blew up in the Chunnel? They don’t. There are many properties to these worlds that we as audiences are willing to accept; short-term memory isn’t one of them. ROGUE NATION seems to want to course correct, bringing up the actions of both of the previous two films and hanging the plot of the repercussions of those actions. The decision adds weight to their decisions, and true consequences…which series like this tend to lack.
What’s more, it can bring a new sort of cheek to the proceedings, especially when well-written. Up until now, the character of Ethan Hunt has been something of a Superman; always in the right place at the right time, and able to roll with even the most vicious of punches. Was it skill? Was it luck? The answer comes this time from Hunley who declares in the late going that Hunt is “The living manifestation of destiny, and he has made (his enemy) his mission”. It’s a definition that seems wordy and clunky, and yet when Alec Baldwin gets to utter it not only does it sound natural, but it prompts us to nod along and say “Yep – makes sense”.
Like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, it’s that small bit of explanation that allows us to suspend disbelief.
In addition to the better understanding of how to interact with an audience, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films have succeeded by giving the team around Hunt more to do – specifically his leading ladies. Where actresses like Emmanuelle Béart and Thandie Newton were glorified damsels in distress, this series has found a new gear by getting women like Paula Patton and Rebecca Ferguson to kick ass themselves. The core conceit of these IMF agents is that they are struggling for identity in a post Cold War world. If characters like Ilsa Faust prove anything, the way for IMF to find their way out of The Cold War Era, it’s to realize the Catniss Everdeen/Furiosa world we now inhabit and embrace that for all it’s worth.
After a day spent re-watching the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series, it’s almost amazing to see how the franchise has gotten better with age. It began as a blockbuster excuse for a huge star to string together stunts, hanging the whole thing on plots that were ludicrous-nay-incomprehensible. Around the time of its third instalment, it was almost left for dead so discontent had audiences grown of the man at the centre of it all. However, thanks to careful rebranding or dumb luck, this is a franchise with new life.
It has widened out it’s scope to incorporate the team more than the man, and more clearly mapped out the goal than lean on the stunts that will make that goal a reality.
In other words, the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise, and ROGUE NATION in particular are less about one soldier, and more about a squad. It is less about the impossible, and more about the mission.