The debut of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation the weekend before last prompted any number of think pieces on Tom Cruise. Essays and interviews focused on "The Rehabilitation of Tom Cruise," while (accurate) proclamations that he’s "The Greatest Movie Star of All Time" were made. We looked back at "Cruise’s Oscar Years" as part of Grantland’s "Tom Cruise Week," which featured a NCAA-style bracket to determine which Cruise character completes us.
Tommy’s back, baby—an impressive feat, given that he never really went away.* More interesting to me is the continued emergence of Christopher McQuarrie as the Cruise Muse. McQuarrie won an Oscar in 1996 for his Usual Suspects script, only his second produced screenplay. In 2000, he directed his first feature, The Way of the Gun, which he also scripted. It would be 12 years before he’d direct again, returning to the chair for Jack Reacher. Starring Cruise.
McQuarrie has been in Cruise’s orbit for some time now, also penning the scripts for Valkyrie (2008) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014). And in the course of "resurrecting" Cruise’s career, McQuarrie has established himself as one of the most impressive makers of action-thrillers working today.
Rogue Nation finds superspy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) fighting a cabal of spooks who have gone underground in order to foment chaos around the world. This "rogue nation" is bringing down jetliners and blowing up chemical plants, and doing so with the panache of those hyper-competent government agencies that only really exist in the movies.
Following a power play by CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) that results in the dissolution of the Impossible Missions Force, the U.S. government disavows Hunt. He himself goes underground in an effort to chase down the leader of this nefarious group. With his computer hacking coworker Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), he globe hops from Cuba to Austria to Casablanca to London, joining forces with a mysterious (and dangerously leggy) British spy named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson).
The stunt work is top notch, naturally. The opening number, in which Cruise—always Cruise, never a stunt double, except for the many times when he uses a stunt double—hangs off the side of a massive jet as it takes off is the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from this franchise, though in terms of pure "wow" I’m not sure it tops Ghost Protocol’s trip outside the Burj Khalifa.
McQuarrie’s direction is crisp without being showy. Particularly praiseworthy is a set piece in the Vienna opera house that has so many moving parts—three shooters (four if you count Hunt), plus the assassination target, plus Benji, plus Hunt’s mysterious enemy—it could’ve very easily fallen apart. But it doesn’t, and McQuarrie and his editor, Eddie Hamilton, deserve a lot of credit for holding it together. The script is convoluted but not distractingly so, as one might expect from the genius who wrote The Usual Suspects.
Reading interviews with McQuarrie, you get the sense he’s frustrated that so many contemporary features, at the behest of the audience, feel so slapdash. "The audience is telling us what they want: it's polished, it's style, gloss and attitude," he told Empire in 2012 while doing press for Jack Reacher. "And the story is not important to them. Continuity is not important to them. Narrative clarity, meaning, none of those things are important."
McQuarrie’s commitment to the basics of storytelling—who, what, where, why, etc.—is one of the reasons he stands out in an industry that prizes flashiness over storytelling. One can only hope that the one-two successes of Jack Reacher and Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation convinces Hollywood to open up its purse and let him make the movies he wants to.
*The perceived backlash against Tom Cruise has nothing to do with his work and everything to do with the fact that he is a Scientologist. You can probably guess how I feel about this sort of silliness.