Anatomy of a Scene: Rogue Nation

I know, I know—it’s been forever since I last posted. Seven months, actually, an absence no doubt weighing heavily on my vast¹ and vocal² readership.

¹ Thirty-eight; ² Zero comments

But for those of you keeping vigil in my front yard, it’s time to pack up the tents, scrape the candle wax off my sidewalk, head home to your parents’ basement to once again fire up those computers. Because I just watched a favorite scene from Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation for about the 20th time and feel the need to talk about it.

Now, once you’re done with all the snark (“Mission Impossible? Tom Cruise? WTF?), feel free to stop hating. Yeah, Tom Cruise has all that Scientology baggage but, personally? I go to his movies to be entertained for a couple hours. If he succeeds, which he usually does, the guy’s fine in my book. Plus, I need to tread lightly here or risk being labeled a “suppressive person,” which could complicate my application to the Sea Org.

As for the Mission: Impossible series, for 21 years now it’s been terrifically entertaining (well, except for M:I2, which was dumb), each film specializing in a distinctive Tom Cruise haircut (buzz, flowing, short, longish, short); plots more convoluted than a quantum physics lecture; one of the great, propulsive main themes in soundtrack history; various supporting casts that actually register; and incredible action set pieces pulled off by a group of directors who know their way around a widescreen frame (Brian DePalma: M:I; John Woo: M:I2; J.J. Abrams: M:I3; Brad Bird: M:I Ghost Protocol and Christopher McQuarrie: M:I Rogue Nation).

So get over yourself. Onward…

The Setup

IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is in big trouble. Which is to say, it’s just another day at the office. Despite preventing Chechen terrorists from securing a bio-weapon by…

a) running across the wing of an Airbus A400M Atlas as it’s taxiing;

b) hanging on for dear life outside the door as the plane takes off (a stunt Cruise performed himself, no doubt giving Paramount’s insurance carrier palpitations); and

c) launching himself from the plane’s cargo hold riding shotgun on the aforementioned weapon of mass destruction

…Ethan finds himself hunted by the CIA (an interagency squabble led by Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin) and the Syndicate (a shadowy terrorist organization run by former MI6 agent Solomon Lane). The latter captures and tortures Ethan until he escapes—shirtless, of course—assisted by the beautiful and mysterious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Who’s side is she on, exactly?

Ethan goes to ground. Six months pass. Ex-IMF agent Benji Dunn (the irrepressible Simon Pegg), cohort of Ethan before the current troubles, receives an all-expense paid trip to the Vienna State Opera. Relegated to computer work now that the IMF has been disbanded, Benji jumps at the chance.

Cut to Vienna, where Benji, walking from the subway, is handed an envelope. Inside are a ticket to Puccini’s Turandot and a pair of high-tech nerd glasses through which the voice of Ethan welcomes his friend to town (much to Benji’s deadpan chagrin: “I didn’t win those opera tickets, did I?”). Ethan explains the situation: he has reason to believe that Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) will be attending the opera and he needs Benji’s help to find and “tag” him so that Ethan can keep a close eye on the vile fellow’s activities. Benji will be back at work on Monday, Ethan assures his friend, no one the wiser. Simple enough.

The Scene

Approaching the opera house, Benji notices an official car pull up. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” he asks the still-disembodied Ethan. And, moments later, watching a VIP couple emerge: “Am I correct in assuming that is the Chancellor of Austria?”

Ethan affirms in the positive. When asked if he knew the Chancellor would be there, Ethan affirms in the negative. “Right…well, we have a European head of state here at the same time as we are looking for a nefarious terrorist,” notes Benji, adding, “And I am sure the two things are completely unrelated.”

The stakes have risen—but wait! Among Benji’s and Ethan’s back and forth, a policeman enters the frame. The camera lingers, indicating this cop may be up to no good, a theory further backed by an ominous musical flourish, the guy’s grim expression and, most of all, his preternaturally high cheekbones:

Ethan, resplendent in a tux as he finally enters the frame, tries to calm Benji, telling him to get into position, which happens to be a closet housing electronic equipment (“Join the IMF,” Benji sighs as he opens his computer. “See the world. On a monitor. In a closet.”).

We cut to a lineup of musicians, instruments in hand, going through security. A case is set on the table and opened, revealing a bass flute, which is scrutinized but allowed to pass, along with its owner, who we only see from behind. There’s something about him, though, isn’t there? Maybe I’m being shallow here, but doesn’t he look a little too athletic, a little too linebacker-ish, to play the bass flute?

If there’s any remaining doubt that he’s a bad actor (as in troublemaker, not thespian), it’s quickly dispelled when he pauses at the entrance to the orchestra pit. Instead of entering, he takes an abrupt left and scurries backstage. As for that fake cop we glimpsed earlier? He’s seen ducking into the sound mixing booth perched high above the crowd.

Bravo to writer-director McQuarrie. In the first minutes of this very long scene (almost 20 minutes), he does a masterful job of slowly ratcheting the tension. Although the audience knows something is afoot with these subtle reveals, our heroes Ethan and Benji remain completely unaware of the increasing threat. The dramatic pieces seem to be falling into place: a Chancellor, two bad guys and our ex-IMF agents. The conductor appears and, waving his baton, begins the opera with a brassy Puccini flourish. McQuarrie’s not done with his setup, though.

As Benji begins his tedious search for Solomon Lane among the crowd, McQuarrie dissolves from Benji’s monitor (indicating a passage of time; we’re now in the opera’s second act) onto the incredibly long legs of a woman in a striking chartreuse silk gown (designed by Oscar-winner Joanna Johnston) as she crosses a landing of the opera house’s main staircase. The camera tracks alongside her poised, unhurried gait and then moves behind as she ascends the next flight, the shot lasting a full 16 seconds, unheard of in an action movie. Hell, Michael Bay would’ve cut 30 times in that span. So who’s the woman McQuarrie feels compelled to linger on so long? It’s none other than Ilsa Faust in full femme fatale mode. The plot thickens!

She’s not there for the performance, of course. No, she heads backstage, climbs onto a catwalk and removes a long metal cylinder that appears to be part of a handrail. Ethan, standing in a deserted box above the Chancellor, scans the crowd, pressuring Benji for some intel on Solomon Lane. As for the two men and one woman skulking around the opera house, he knows nothing. However, Benji soon catches sight of something suspicious, that massive “flutist” hiding behind a door from some extras. He alerts Ethan, who heads backstage. The Turandot players sings on, like our heroes blissfully unaware of the impending gunplay:

Ethan spots the “flutist” and pursues, doing some of that cool Tom Cruise who-needs-a-stuntman scaffold leaping and column descending. However, as he drops to the ground, he glimpses the woman in the pale yellow gown—Ilsa—her appearance timed perfectly by McQuarrie to coincide with the impossibly mournful “Nessun Dorma” leitmotif (look it up) from the opera. He seems unsure whether or not he knows her—she’s in weak light and off in the distance. Before he can get a closer look, she disappears behind some scenery, where, unbeknownst to Ethan, she climbs into a prop pagoda, where she begins to assemble that metal cylinder into a rifle while making sinister eyes at her quarry: the Chancellor:

With her out of the picture, Ethan refocuses on the “flutist,” who he spots ascending some backstage scaffolding. This leads to a wonderfully designed and composed shot involving a quick focus pull. We see Ethan, in the background, pursuing up a flight of stairs. However, this quickly become blurred as focus shifts to the foreground, revealing Ilsa inside the pagoda putting the finishing touches on her rifle. It’s such an incredibly economical way to let us know where the two characters exist in space, that both have no idea the other is there and that, despite their ignorance of each other, we, the audience, know they’re heading for a confrontation.

Speaking of putting the finishing touches on one’s weapon, the “flutist,” unaware that Ethan is in pursuit, opens his instrument case and starts assembling his “flute” into a very cool rifle complete with a scope and silencer, the latter ruling it out as woodwind accompaniment for Act 3. As for the fake cop in the sound booth, he too assembles a rifle from his baton, his pistol and various and sundry other things. Three rifles, one Chancellor—things aren’t looking good for diplomacy.

Ethan spots the “flutist” on a catwalk high above the stage and, unbuttoning the top button of his dress shirt and removing his tie—yeah, he’s a super agent, but he’s also very sensible—prepares to kick some butt.

We cut to Ilsa thumbing through a copy of Turandot’s score until she spots a red circle on the sustained A4 note (Vincerò!) that crescendos the famous “Nessun Dorma” aria. This, it seems, is the signal to pull the trigger. Here McQuarrie is borrowing liberally from Hitchcock (well, the same can be said—in a good way—about the entire scene, which brings to mind the fateful concert at Royal Albert Hall in 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much). Because it was Hitchcock who contended that “There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise.'” In other words, it’s OK to know exactly when the Chancellor is to be shot; it makes the audience participants in the scene. “The audience,” Hitchcock noted, “is longing to warn the characters on the screen.” Thus the tension.

Ethan begins to tussle with the humongous “flutist” on a ribbon of moveable catwalk 50 feet above the stage. As the two kick, punch and trip each other, Act 2 of the opera comes to a close, a moment that signals all the assassins take their positions. The shot of Ilsa, in particular, is a classic in terms of posture, lighting and widescreen composition:

The pagoda containing Ilsa is wheeled on stage as Calaf, the prince, begins to sing “Nessun Dorma.” Ilsa casts the red dot from her laser scope onto the chest of the clueless Chancellor, a red dot that is soon joined by a second, this on the poor slobs neck, from the fake cop’s laser scope. No doubt a third red dot would’ve appeared, probably on the Chancellor’s uvula considering the amount of claimed real estate, had the “flutist” not been preoccupied with his brutal and precarious fight. Good news is, he eventually gets Ethan into choke hold. Bad news is, Ethan, being a super agent, takes this development in stride—not only does it afford him his first glimpse of the fake cop in the sound booth preparing to take a shot, it gives him the chance to use a rising lighting rig to flip over his assailant and karate kick the bastard onto a rhino’s horn below. One assassin down, two to go as the aria speeds towards its crescendo. Ethan recovers the flute rifle, loads it and positions himself to fire on the fake cop (another wonderfully composed shot by McQuarrie and his fine cinematographer, Robert Elswit):

As he aims, he catches sight of Ilsa in the pagoda. Oh shit—two targets, one bullet. The camera takes on Ethan’s POV, his eyes whipping from the Chancellor…

to the fake cop…

to Ilsa…

An untenable situation!

The tenor digs deep into Vin-ce-rò!, sustaining that famous A4 note. Ethan makes his decision and fires. As for who he shoots and how he gets out of this pickle, you’ll need to see the movie. For those who have, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s as unexpected as it is brilliant.

Summary

Christopher McQuarrie is probably best known for writing The Usual Suspects (1995), which won him the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Turns out the guy can direct, too. In M:I Rogue Nation, he shows serious command of the visual language of film. His Turandot-set assassination scene is virtuosic in its construction and execution. Nothing is rushed; McQuarrie takes his time setting up the players, the situation and the space they all occupy. He’s not afraid to hold a shot for as long as he feels necessary and his widescreen compositions and camera movements are all designed to impart the maximum information. After all, this is a scene that plays with only few words of dialogue, which means McQuarrie’s visuals must do the talking. Luckily, he’s confident enough in his bag of cinematic tricks to not have to rely on quick cuts, jump scares or hyper-violence to wring tension from his audience. The scene has a real classic Hollywood feel to its construction, something that would’ve made Hitchcock proud. Then, of course, there’s the music, one of the opera’s greatest scores playing through it all. Great music, tense situation, beautifully thought out visuals and three jerry-built guns trained on a Chancellor. What else could a movie-lover want?

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