I’ve written before about James Bond and where the franchise should go after the woefully uneven SPECTRE. But a recent watch of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation showed me just how badly the lastest Bond adventure missed its mark. Here are a few areas in which Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is clearly the better spy thriller or, dare I say it, the better Bond film.
Spy Tech and Gadgetry
We’re four movies in with the current Bond, and they still haven’t figured out how to give the guy a fun or inventive gadget. Sure, SPECTRE gave him an exploding watch and a car with an ejector seat and flamethrower, but those gadgets aren’t much more than glossy riffs on classic Bond iconography. In other words, sticking a weapon in an Aston Martin isn’t innovation. There’s certainly something to be said for delivering nods for diehard Bond fans, but this franchise desperately needs to bring in fresh ideas.
M:I, on the other hand, is innovating in fun and quirky ways. As always, Ethan Hunt and his crew always have some preposterously convenient way to make perfect masks of other people’s faces. That’s not exactly innovation, but what impressed me in Hunt’s latest outing was how low-profile and flexible the tech is. When Ilsa and Ethan have to hold their breath, they wear a smart neoprene sleeve (seen in the clip below) that acts as a timer and oxygen meter. It’s not an advanced wearable computer, just a simple gadget that gives Ethan a highly readable display that also serves as a strong visual reminder of the scene’s ticking clock. It’s brilliant stuff, just like the climbing gloves seen in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (blue is glue, red is dead).
The big technological joys in Rogue Nation happen during the film’s opera house sequence, in which three characters wield sniper rifles assembled out of disguised parts. There’s one made from metal pipes, one from a nightstick, and — this is the best — one disguised as an alto flute. Meanwhile, Benji (Simon Pegg, a true blessing) is watching this all unfold on a monitor made out of paper, with video feeds projected upon it by tiny stick-on widgets. It’s nice to see M:I’s crew picking up the slack in the gadget department, even without a Q of their own.
Mythology, Or Lack Thereof
Ever since Bond underwent its big stylistic reboot with Casino Royale, the series has been impotently striving to get Bond back to some kind of “standard”, with a fresh M, a Q, a Miss Moneypenny, and a Blofeld. It’s like every film has been some kind of prequel story for a 007 that has all the trimmings one might expect from a Connery or Moore-era Bond film.
But somewhere lies a misunderstanding — a stubborn lack of acknowledgment that Craig’s Bond operated best when he was merely flirting with the formula, not embracing it. Skyfall was a much heavier flirtation than Casino Royale, but it still felt like we were seeing a prototype of an eventual 007, not the mythical spy. The current Bond regime’s focus on origin stories and mythmaking has held back the franchise back from telling strong one-off stories that traded continuity for fun.
But Mission: Impossible keeps sending Ethan Hunt out on adventures without much regard for the potentially world-changing events that happened in the last film. Characters’ roles change fluidly from one film to the next, which is fine, if only because bouncing the IMF team off one another in interesting ways helps keep the franchise fresh. In Rogue Nation, Brandt takes on a kind of executive role. Benji becomes the best friend Ethan never had. Both Paula Patton and Michelle Monaghan (playing Ethan’s wife, assuming they’re still married) are nowhere to be seen and go completely unacknowledged. Instead, Ethan gets a new romantic interest, and she’s one of the best things in the film.
A Better Chilly Romance
Neither the Bond franchise nor the character has ever recovered from the loss of Vesper Lynd (the perfectly cast Eva Green). No romantic partner since Lynd has ever felt like Bond’s equal, especially not Bond’s inert, passionless flings in SPECTRE. One can only hope they’re going to do better next time.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Ferguson is kicking ass as Ilsa Faust, whose chaste romance with Hunt is told completely through snappy dialogue, smoldering looks, comical moments of forced intimacy (“shoes, please!”), and composer Joe Kramer’s callbacks to the film’s opera sequence. Will Ilsa and Ethan ever become more than just friends? Part of me hopes so. The other part of me just wants to see them continue to dance around their undeniable chemistry. Oh, and Ethan’s still married, we think. Regardless, we heard last December that Rebecca Ferguson is officially signed on to return in the next M:I, making her the first female lead in the series to come back for another film.
Fun and Humor
Trying to explain why something is or isn’t funny is usually futile, so I’m not sure how much there is to be said about the humor when comparing SPECTRE and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. But I know this: The former is mostly humorless, and the latter displays a willingness to let the characters be funny at the expense of their coolness. When a goon knocks Ethan down in the opera house and advances on our winded hero, Ethan reaches up to give him the ol’ “gimme a minute here” finger in a moment of physical comedy we’d never see in Bond.
The dearth of good laughs in SPECTRE, when compared to Rogue Nation, is due a slight but important difference in tone. After Austin Powers, the Bond series is always trying to avoid any goofiness. But Casino Royale showed a unique balance between Bond’s coolness and raw, clumsy nature that gave the film some genuine laughs. Craig’s Bond is a blunt instrument, and that characterization is a great source of conflict and potential humor. Unfortunately, it’s gone largely unused for Bond’s last two outings. But in Rogue Nation and Ghost Protocol, the heroes and villains aren’t the kind of detached badasses we get in so many contemporary, straight-faced action films. They’re more fallible, lighter, and carry the M:I franchise on their shoulders much gracefully than Bond carries his.