Since we all know that the “Impossible” part of the Mission: Impossible franchise films might just as well be replaced with “Improbable,” I won’t belabour the point that Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation would be an awful lot shorter if the opening sequence showcased on the poster would have obeyed real-life laws of physics. Clinging to the side of a Russian cargo plane as it takes off, Tom Cruise’s fingers would likely have been torn from their sockets, leading to a credit roll over his broken body lying on the tarmac of a Belorussian runway as puzzled mercenaries kicked the body and shrugged at each other.
But we don’t see films like MI:Rogue Nation to see plausible physics and anatomy demonstrated; we know that the ferocious beatings that Cruise’s Ethan Hunt takes over the course of the films would leave the average person hospitalized for months, and limping and crippled for the rest of their lives. Any motorcycle rider watching the film will chuckle to themselves after one key chase scene ends not with Hunt in traction, most of his epidermis grated off by asphalt and gravel, but with our hero, beer in hand, smarting slightly as he contemplates his team’s next move in some Moroccan roadside bar.
We have excused improbabilities since the Fairbankses Senior and Junior swashbuckled, and with superhero films we’ve extended our suspension of physical disbelief to catastrophic injuries we know would end in a few shards of flame-crisped bone or a long wet smear of hair and muscle tissue. Movies are fantasies, and while it’s fun to dismiss the strict limits of human endurance in the pursuit of ever more ecstatic action sequences, I can’t help but wonder what films like the Mission: Impossible series have done to our sense of the geopolitically possible.
There’s no point in setting up the plot of MI: Rogue Nation; fans of the series – and the genre as a whole – will sit down expecting shadowy lairs and fantastic gadgets, eyes in the sky, surveillance cameras tapped and hacked, cruel henchmen, MacGuffins galore, sinister baddies, vast criminal conspiracies and intelligence agencies either complicit or suborned into them. The clichés of the series were so well established after the previous four films – ticking countdowns, rubber masks, rogue agents, Cruise running and hanging and falling – that they can be summed up in one parody trailer:
The only variation MI: Rogue Nation brings to the series is the slightest intimation – expressed in grimaces and sidelong glances – that Tom Cruise might be getting a bit old for this kind of thing, as his boyishness finally starts to fade and crackle like an old billboard by a sunny, busy highway.
MI: Rogue Nation hijacks the very Bond-ian concept of “The Syndicate,” a shadowy criminal group staffed with ex-intelligence agents intent on destabilizing the world’s governments and economies for fun, profit and revenge. Recruitment into its ranks is helped, we’re told, by the moral exhaustion of career spies whose loyalty and patriotism has been bleached away by the rank cynicism and realpolitik of their masters.
It was a corrosive idea back when it was mainstreamed by the books and movie adaptations of John Le Carre and Len Deighton during the Cold War. It’s even more unsettling as it’s revived in the post-9/11 world where the enemies are more barbaric, the means of fighting them less obvious, and the will of our political leaders far more wavering. It’s a measure of our shared demoralization that a key plot point – that the CIA is a plodding and inept entity more interested in power than competence – is so casually accepted that it might be the most realistic thing we’re asked to accept between the opening scene and the final credits.
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