I’ve discovered an interesting filmmaker in you, Mr. McQuarrie. I was unfamiliar with your work until I went to see Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation late last week. Or rather, I was not unfamiliar with it, I just didn’t know I was familiar with it until a quick Google search revealed your screenwriting and directing credits. I’ve seen The Usual Suspects, for example, and it is a film that has left a pretty significant mark upon the landscape of American film, as people of all generations continue to ask the question, who is Keyser Söze? So clearly, you have a distinctive voice, and one that I too have unknowingly taken notice of and tucked into the recesses of my film brain throughout the years, only to have your name resurface in my consciousness in this summer of 2015.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is currently a film on everyone’s lips. Rotten Tomatoes registers a 95% for top critics on the Tomatometer, and a whopping $55.5 million weekend box office draw. That’s pretty impressive given that this is the 5th installment of a film franchise with its beginnings in the action craze of 1980s and 1990s Hollywood. Modern day Hollywood is no stranger to action, the franchise, the reboot, or the sequel, but, as an avid movie-goer, I find that these recent installments very rarely live up to their predecessors. The Mission Impossible franchise, if anything, seems to be improving as it ages. I’ve enjoyed all of the installments: they are fun, entertaining, and showcase Tom Cruise in one of his most charismatic roles. However, Ghost Protocol, and now Rogue Nation, have been two of my favorite. I myself am an aspiring filmmaker so I tend to watch films (even supposed popcorn pieces) with something of a critical eye, and Rogue Nation struck me for a number of reasons.
I would consider myself something of an action film classicist. I like to be able to see my action sequences. I don’t understand the point of shaky camera and jarringly awkward, or “gritty,” edits. Most often I feel as though these are crutches for sub-par filmmaking. They are wonderful distractions providing the illusion of excitement and suspense, but when analyzed and pulled apart, reveal a lack of substance. Rogue Nation did not rely on these techniques, instead favoring a wider framing, and more measured timing in the cutting, two techniques that showcase the strengths provided by the theatrically released film format, and an understanding of historical filmmaking technique. Close-ups can be a great emotional tool, but too heavy a reliance on them grows numbing quickly, and leaves the viewer wondering why he or she isn’t just watching a TV show. I loved that I was allowed to see every punch and kick delivered by Ethan or Ilsa and that the skylines of London and Austria created vivid visual settings for the action of the drama to unfold. The story and the characters were responsible for holding my attention and generating my excitement, not a bunch of quick zooms and documentary “action” camera movement. An action film that is exciting in its own right as a story and character study is one that will endure.
So let’s talk character in Rogue Nation. Ilsa Faust is one of the most competent female characters in a spy movie that I have ever seen. As a woman interested in breaking into the world of movie-making I do try to keep abreast of women directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, sound designers, and of course, the portrayal of women in film. Action films are notorious for perpetuating the damsel-in-distress trope, which has grown trite, although (interestingly) recent trends in both television and film have seen more and more women delivering acts of violence as a reaction to this. Even today, a strong woman in an action film often starts out with guns blazing, only to fall to the wayside by act three. It’s always terribly disappointing. When the viewer is first introduced to Ilsa she is strong, and confident, removing her 5-inch stilettos with great intentionality. From the beginning, her character rejects the standard portrayal of the female action star, acknowledging the impossibility of performing the great acts of athleticism required by the work of a spy in such impractical footwear. As the movie progresses, her portrayal continues to shine out, and she is given a climatic confrontation worthy of any of her male colleagues. I think it is a testament to your mode of storytelling that you recognize that a woman can be sexy, but strong, and an equal to her male counterpart on-screen. It’s good storytelling and reminiscent of the classic Hollywood films of the ’30s and ’40s when women and men engaged in such witty repartee that no viewer would think either one lesser than the other.
Now that I know your name, I won’t forget it. I’m glad to have discovered another writer/director to add to my watch list. I’ve more exploring to do within your body of work: The Way of the Gun just made it to the top of my Netflix queue. I look forward to see what you do next, whether it is another directorial effort or screenplay. Thank you for continuing to help redefine what constitutes a modern action movie; I think you have some interesting things to say.