Mission Impossible Rogue Nation Christopher McQuarrie

(Welcome to Team Leaders, a series where we explore how the directors of the Mission: Impossible movies used this franchise as a canvas to explore their pet themes and show off their unique sensibilities. In this edition: Christopher McQuarrie leads the series into the future with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.)

With Ghost Protocol (’11), writer/director Christopher McQuarrie previously put his stamp (albeit anonymously) on the franchise’s future, having been brought in midway through shooting to help re-tool the narrative of animation great Brad Bird’s live-action blockbuster debut. This “doctoring” assignment arrived because of the scribe’s growing history with Tom Cruise, which began on the old-fashioned Hitler assassination adventure, Valkyrie (’08), where McQuarrie tailored the part of rebellious Nazi officer Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg for Cruise after introducing the All-American marque idol to director Bryan Singer at United Artists.

Give Them What They Want

The very next year, McQuarrie set his place in Cruise’s cinematic family by taking the reins on Jack Reacher (’12), a real meat and potatoes studio action programmer whose central character – the titular off-the-grid military investigator who interferes with a conspiracy involving an ostensibly lone sniper – operates as the blue collar answer to IMF Agent Ethan Hunt. As a whole, Reacher feels like a dry run for the larger canvas of the Mission: Impossible series, showcasing McQuarrie’s golden ear for tough guy patter, knack for immersing the audience in a setting (as cinematographer Caleb Deschanel perfectly captures Pittsburgh’s Yinzer aura), and expert character work (including Werner Herzog’s over the top villain, The Zec). Jack Reacher was the sort of modestly budgeted adult thriller we just don’t get that many of anymore, proving that McQuarrie could operate with ease at the studio level after spending years in proverbial “director’s jail” after his post-Academy Award debut, Way of the Gun (‘00).

McQuarrie’s Rogue Nation (’15) – the fifth film in theM: I canon – is arguably the high-water mark of the series. A muscular work of genre craftsmanship, McQuarrie constructs possibly the best “back to basics” set piece in an already long line of iconic action beats (a brawl/sniper duel at the Vienna opera) while simultaneously gifting longstanding characters room to grow and evolve (Simon Pegg’s Benji becoming an integral part of the field operation). Just as Mission: Impossible III (’06) saw J.J. Abrams rebooting the franchise with a new “intimate” mythology, McQuarrie took said mythos to their logical conclusion: massaging them into a workmanlike rollercoaster whose metaphorical loops were represented by breathtaking instances of now trademarked stunt spectacle. To wit, he recognized what audiences desired from an M: I film and delivered in spades.

The Newcomers

Yet perhaps the most impressive elements of Rogue Nation are the new characters it introduces, who threaten to steal the entire show away from Cruise. Sean Harris is pitch perfect as Solomon Lane – the Blofeldian arch nemesis and head of the international anarchist sect The Syndicate. Meanwhile, Ethan runs wild yet again, as he’s tracked by CIA Director Alan Hunley (a beautifully scotch-throated Alec Baldwin), who believes the Impossible Mission Force Hunt holds so dear to his heart are a danger to not only American national security, but the globe’s. 

Besting both of those new additions to this boys’ club is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a British intelligence officer whose own mission (the completion of which will finally allow her to return home) intersects with Hunt’s quest to expose the existence of the Syndicate, and thwart Lane’s plot to obtain a red box of encrypted data (whose decoding could expose a covert slush fund).

Beyond possessing an almost paranormal level of chemistry with Cruise, Ferguson injects equal doses of sexy physicality and deeply felt melancholy into the character, rendering Faust both a worthy adversary and love interest. To be honest, Ilsa could command her own set of movies, completely removed from the M: I mythos, and they’d be just as beguiling as when Ferguson’s working with this team of gifted performers. That’s an incredibly rare compliment – both to the actress and McQuarrie – as it’s difficult to come up with another example of a character entering a series this late in its existence and being able to not only seize the audience’s attention, but potentially command preference as well. 

Herculean Feats

While the Mission: Impossible pictures have been renowned for their practical stunt-work, McQuarrie and his consummate front man up the ante to ludicrous heights in Rogue Nation. Aside from Cruise hanging on to the exterior of an Atlas C1 as it takes flight in the movie’s opening moments, a harrowing underwater sequence makes one wonder how the star didn’t suffocate onscreen. Cruise trained with a diving specialist in order to hold his breath for three minutes for the sequence, which was filmed in a single take without any edits (though the editing in the finished product tricks the viewer into believing several were utilized). Nevertheless, stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood claims that Cruise held his breath for just over six minutes; a Herculean feat performed solely for our entertainment.

Though for all the truly tremendous action staging, McQuarrie never leaves his writerly instincts behind. This wordy predisposition is perhaps best displayed in the movie’s final act, where Baldwin’s harried Agency man offers up an absolutely delectable verbal summation of the series’ central superhuman:

“Hunt is uniquely trained and highly motivated – a specialist without equal – immune to any countermeasures. There is no secret he cannot extract, no security he cannot breach, no person he cannot become. He has most likely anticipated this very conversation and is waiting to strike in whatever direction we move. Sir, Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny – and he has made you his mission.”

Rogue Nation is a superlative Mission: Impossible film; a datum that renders McQuarrie’s decision to attempt to best himself with Fallout (’18) – not to mention become the very first director in franchise history to helm more than one installment – all the more daunting. The fact that he actually achieved his goal is downright legendary, and speaks to the strength of the creative bond he and Cruise have forged over the last decade.  This is a one-two punch that will stand the test of time as a duo of the finest achievements in the history of studio filmmaking; a moment where two artists saw in one another the potential to craft some of the most thrilling pulp fiction the medium has ever known.

Were Rogue Nation and Fallout to become a series-capping duology, it’d be a satisfying conclusion to an improbably consistent multiplex staple that started as a vanity project, and ended up elevating an entire genre through its commitment to delivering exactly what the audience wants, while letting its creators indulge their wildest desires.

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