So I saw Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation fairly late into its theatrical run. It was a random choice based on what was playing at the time. I’d heard it was a fairly good action movie, and even heard some hyperbole about it being the best Mission: Impossible movie, which sounded unlikely to me. I still think that’s hyperbole after seeing it (can’t touch De Palma, sorry) but I was quite impressed with the film. It never quite reaches the heights of Ghost Protocol’s stunts, but the action feels better structured and designed than Brad Bird’s franchise entry. All in all it feels like a better film, and it’s probably one of the more functional blockbuster action films in recent memory. Crap like Marvel movies don’t contend, with their stale prevised action, and past that I can’t think of many recent contenders in the blockbuster arena. Rogue Nation has a series of excellent, tight, well-designed action scenes. At times the set pieces are positively Hitchcockian, which is a nice thing. The plot is sort of a non-factor, although the movie gets a lot of mileage out of Rebecca Ferguson’s gripping screen presence. It almost singlehandedly keeps the film interesting between action scenes. But you’re really here for the action, so I thought it would be fun to do something a little different and rank Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’s action scenes from worst to best.
7) Underwater Heist
In my not so humble opinion this scene kind of blew. Blew bubbles!!!! That’s it, I’ve achieved perfection. Time for ritualistic suicide, no joke will ever top this water based pun. Might as well finish this article first though. There’s something about waiting for the full moon… The underwater heist was arguably Rogue Nation’s biggest action scene, for some reason. It was the one most heavily advertised (other than the plane bit) and it was the one they routinely almost drowned the immortal Tom Cruise for. But almost nothing about it strung together for me. The whole premise, with security data being stored in a flooded, metal detector filled chamber, read as ridiculous to me. And I refuse to believe there’s no way you could make a rudimentary metal-free breathing apparatus. Even a sealed plastic container with a hose coming out of it is better than no air. Given the array of gadgets Tom Cruise has used in this series, I’d think a plastic based breathing device would be pretty damn simple. Lazy spy gadgetry aside, the scene was most sunk by the terrible dependence on CGI. The joy of Immortal King of the Lizard People Tom Cruise is that he does all his freaking stunts. He’s American Jackie Chan, you can see him doing all the action bits himself and it makes them much more effective. Seeing the actor’s face automatically makes it more gripping than the hidden face of an anonymous stuntman. (Of course our American Jackie Chan will only do one Jackie Chan level manoeuvre in a movie, but whatever.) Tom Cruise is in action movies because he does stunts, so building a scene around whirling CGI Tom Cruise is just boring. This is the only action scene in the movie that was bad. It’s just a super typical blockbuster pixel fest, when the rest of the movie is an awesome tactile throwback.
6) The Plane Ride
It’s a pretty quick, minor scene. That’s why it’s so low on this list. Yes, the actual plane stunt is fabulously impressive, and the whole scene is pretty funny. It makes a great opening to the movie. At its heart though, this scene is a cold open. It’s mainly about quick effect. It’s a blunt force stunt, lacking the finesse and pacing of some of the other scenes. It also doesn’t connect to the narrative at all, and while the film’s story is slight, action is always better with clearer stakes and plot. No amount of Tom Cruise on a plane can make up for that.
5) Tom Cruise Visits the Doctor (The Torture Scene)
I assume that Scientologists basically get medical treatment by being strapped to a pole and tortured? My whole joke title is kind of dependent on that. Early stage Iggy Pop imitator Tom Cruise’s beliefs aside, this is a pretty solid scene. Remember when I said Tom Cruise could only manage about one Jackie Chan level manoeuvre a film? The moment where he clears the top of the pipe he’s tied to is that moment. It’s the sort of thing Jackie Chan would do five times in a film, twice as a piece of slapstick, but when Tom Cruise does it it’s something the film has to luxuriate over. Look at that physical feat! Granted it is legitimately impressive, and makes for a pretty cool moment in the film. Just comparing it to a higher standard of action is interesting. This scene is pretty quick, and more about introducing Tom Cruise to Rebecca Ferguson than anything else, but it’s still a clever little bit of hand-to-hand combat. The way our two protagonists get the better of their captors is satisfying and fun to watch, and most importantly it’s decently creative. It may be a brief scene but it’s inventive and memorable. Mainly because it toes close to being a martial arts fight, which always seems surprising and innovative in American action movies.
4) The Final Chase
Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson run through the streets beating up bad guys and leading the nefarious super villain to an elaborate trap. It’s a slightly more typical action scene, filled with gunplay and fisticuffs. It wouldn’t be an American action scene if there wasn’t a bit of boring gunplay. It’s the bread and butter of today’s action cinema. Not that I’m expecting John Woo, but it’s still nice to see a little variance on the point at a guy and shoot formula. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (christ this punctuation) does alright in this scene. The two run through various street locations, shoot people, fight people, and stab people. It’s well choreographed, well paced, and well filmed. There’s clear geography, stakes, and goals throughout the scene. Which may sound basic, but it’s shockingly uncommon, especially in today’s blockbuster landscape. Not many people get the basics right. In many ways this is actually one of the film’s more forgettable scenes; there aren’t nearly as many stand-out moments and almost no especially impressive stunts by The Mixture of Gristle and Superglue known as Tom Cruise. It doesn’t matter though, because the scene is gripping despite its relative simplicity. Like I said, few people get the basics right, and it’s worth lauding those that do.
3) Car Chase
After the film’s worst action scene, pasty papier mâché action star Tom Cruise dies briefly (drowning will do that to you) and immediately has to start a car chase. That’s already a fun piece of context and an entertaining twist added to the scene, even before you examine the execution. Car chases are normally the modern action movie’s Achilles heel, but Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation pulls it off pretty gracefully. Largely the character driven moments between a slightly brain dead Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg elevate the scene. All action is better when it’s at least slightly infused with characters, and their schtick is pretty funny. Their central bromance really injects some flavour in the film. The action itself is also wonderful. Filled with well communicated developments and a few great car stunts. It’s fast and fun, when most car chases are boring and static. The moment where Tom Cruise’s car launches backwards off those steps is an eye-catching stunt but, like most of this movie, it’s the nuts and bolts of the action that really make the scene shine. The editing and cinematography is simply above average. No Bayhem here.
2) Bike Chase
The bike chase does connect pretty directly with the last scene, but the stunts feel distinct enough I think it’s worth separating. This is really where God-King of the Dwarven Callouses Tom Cruise makes the movie better. Seeing his face through these bike stunts is frankly intense. There’s nothing you’ve never seen before in this scene, in fact the whole thing is just a pretty linear scene of Tom Cruise motorbiking in an attempt to catch Rebecca Ferguson. Along the way he does frighteningly tight turns on his bike. The camera basically sits in a few spots, showing us the road and showing us Tom Cruise. It’s positively exhilarating, making a scene that could’ve been another hyper generic and boring vehicle chase one of the movie’s tensest moments. It’s here that the movie’s lovely tactile aesthetic and old-school stunts add a level of reality that really works. It’s almost like watching better framed Go-Pro footage or something. It feels real, not cinematic, which is pretty much the best thing you could achieve in an action scene like this. When was the last time a stunt in an action movie felt more real than fake? Especially a stunt that could so easily be achieved with digital effects. No digital Tom Cruise here, and you can feel every second of reality.
1) The Opera
This scene is so goddamned good. This is the Hitchcockian moment I referred to earlier. It’s a phenomenally paced scene with expanding shifting stakes, lovely visuals, and great action. Basically Tom Cruise believes a foreign prime minister is going to be assassinated at an opera and goes to stop him. He first has to spot the assassin. He identifies a threat back stage. Unbeknownst to him another assailant heads up towards the AV booth. As he tries to deal with the initial shooter he spots Rebecca Ferguson across the stage and Simon Pegg spots the third shooter. Suddenly there are three threats to contend with, and the guy Tom Cruise is combatting is a pretty massive dude (or normal sized, sans the normal special effects that enlarge Cruise). As all this unfurls another wrinkle is added – the three assassins are all in opposition, and they’re all trying to take out each other as well as the prime minister. This scene has the guts to be busy, filled with elegantly communicated but dense facts, which is pretty uncommon in blockbusters of late. It’s not worried about pandering to the audience, instead assuming they’ll be able to keep up. The fight between Tom Cruise and the big lad is fun, filled with interesting developments that connect to other characters’ actions, a shifting landscape, dangerous heights, and changing weapons. It’s another scene that feels more like a martial arts film than an American blockbuster, and that’s a good thing. It’s not just the fight that sells this scene though. The visually fascinating locations help, as does the fairly pretty cinematography. What really makes it great is the expanding stakes and other characters. The fact that the movie cuts between Simon Pegg trying to stop an assassin (which in turn affects Tom Cruise’s fight) and Rebecca Ferguson lining up a shot is exciting. Then the assassins start aiming for each other and spotting each other and reacting. A lot of action scenes rely on a vague idea of what constitutes ramping the stakes. “We’ll have the music build, and the characters get bloodier, and the fight go on longer, and maybe have a new explosion or a moment of tension. Stakes ramped.” In truth the fact that every other moment in this opera scene introduces a new threat to contend with or shows a new response to a threat does more than any musical sting ever could. It’s the difference between three act structure and five act structure. It builds tension by having new things happen that complicate the situation. It assumes the audience will keep up, but does its best to communicate these ideas simply and visually. There are no crazy visual effects, no big budget stunts, just great filmmaking and great fight choreography. It’s great visual storytelling, single handedly worthy of the price of admission.