There are multiple thrilling sequences in Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, but the highest mark of it all comes midway through when the director pulls out all the stops to create three consecutive action sequences that constantly shift the characters and motives underneath the audience. It’s a high wire act of storytelling, character structure and action filmmaking; a microcosm of why McQuarrie is such an excellent and underappreciated filmmaker.
It begins with an impossible heist, as such an act has become a staple of the franchise. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) must obtain a file containing information on a terrorist organization known as The Syndicate, and it’s stored in what is basically a bank vault for digital information. To get to the file, Benji (Simon Pegg) will pass through a few security checkpoints impersonating the only person with access to the file. To get through the final checkpoint, they need to upload a new identity for the security system to approve. The only way to do this? Break into an underwater facility and switch out the profile before Benji reaches the checkpoint. Of course, there’s one other thing: to get into the underwater facility, Hunt can’t use an oxygen tank as the facility will shut down if metal enters it.
The sequence is brilliantly shot with McQuarrie offering extended takes to heighten the sense that Hunt is running out of oxygen with every passing second. Every movement he makes brings him closer to suffocation. Up above, McQuarrie keeps up the pacing and escalating tension as Benji becomes closer and closer to the checkpoint. After the whirlpool in the facility starts back up, Hunt loses the replacement profile, chooses one at random and puts it in just in time, but he dies before he can open up the service hatch to escape. The camera floats with his lifeless body, when suddenly we’re caught by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who rescues Hunt and resuscitates him back to life. This marks the first character dynamic shift between the trio. Benji tells Ilsa he now trusts her, and so does the audience. Of course, as soon as that shift happens, McQuarrie changes the ground underneath the characters. Ilsa knocks out Benji and takes the drive with the ledger on it.
Now we come to the first motorcycle chase. Ilsa takes out the motorbikes of the syndicate members so she can escape, while Hunt and Benji follow in a car. The stunts that follow are as good as they get, with McQuarrie using practical effects the whole way through as Hunt takes out multiple Syndicate members with his car while running into Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), who have been looking for him. This particular setpiece leads to Hunt crashing the car.
After the crash, Hunt mounts a motorbike and chases after the men tracking Ilsa in a highway stunt scene that will make you sweat, as he’s both hunting down the woman and trying to protect her. Hunt finally catches up, but after rounding a corner, he finds Ilsa standing in the middle of the road. Does he want to capture her or help? She won’t let him have both. Hunt crashes to avoid hitting Ilsa, thus offering some help. The dynamic between them goes from trust to betrayal to both.
The entire sequence goes on for a good thirty minutes, but it flows by so briskly that you barely feel the time going by. Each action segment is distinct in both pacing, character dynamic and escalation while leading naturally into the next scene. The sequence makes for one of the most thrilling spectacles of the year and stands as a strong example of why McQuarrie so deserved this gig. He brings together many strands of character dynamic and subplot all the while creating a consistent string of exciting action. McQuarrie can masterfully combine storytelling, character motivation and thrillingly constructed action, and the scene is a prime indicator of why he’s among the best filmmakers working right now.
His Blazing Automatics is a weekly column by Dylan Moses Griffin, who has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.