This Friday, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation will be released. It’s the fifth film in the iconic franchise, but sadly stands as only the third film of its director Christopher McQuarrie in 15 years since he got behind the camera. That’s a real shame, because Christopher McQuarrie is Hollywood’s best-kept secret when he really should be their pride and joy.
Christopher McQuarrie was so damn hot in the mid-90s. He wrote the script for the classic The Usual Suspects and came home with an Oscar. He ended up using that clout to get his feature-directing debut made with the criminally underrated The Way of the Gun, released in 2000. The film failed both critically and commercially – a domestic gross of $6 million, and a worldwide gross of only $13 million against a $21 million budget – and McQuarrie went from insider to outcast in Hollywood.
Fast forward eight years and McQuarrie had only done some ghostwriting on scripts until he writes the script for Bryan Singer’s 2008 thriller Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise. The two meet on set and click, and Cruise takes on his own impossible mission: Break McQuarrie out of director’s jail.
Cruise saw in McQuarrie what others didn’t seem to: a profound ability to mesh strong storytelling, memorable characters and top-notch action and practical effects. McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun encapsulates all those qualities. It takes motifs and characters of classic Western “Drifter/Man with no Name” films and updates them to modern times in a cinematic manner that feels authentic. He gets great performances out of Ryan Phillipe and Benicio Del Toro as the two drifters who kidnap and hold for ransom a mob boss’s pregnant surrogate (Scott Wilson and Juliette Lewis respectively). James Caan gives one of his greatest performances as the aging hitman Joe Sarno, bringing a real sense of tragedy and weariness that feels as if his character from Thief had eventually aged into Sarno. The final shootout is one of the most impressive in modern cinema, taking place in the same spot as the final shootout as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. McQuarrie keeps track of how many bullets are fired in the scene – characters are forced to reload when they run out, eschewing the “endless bullets” action trope – and it creates a sense of reality to the scene that makes it all the more thrilling and tense. The fact that this film didn’t get any recognition upon release is a crime of cinema.
McQuarrie became an integral part of Cruise’s future ventures, spending most of his work time in collaboration with Cruise in-between a few studio scripts, even working on the script for last year’s Edge of Tomorrow. (Disclosure: Due to the amount of writers on The Tourist and Jack the Giant Slayer, I choose to believe that very little of what McQuarrie wrote is what ended up on screen.) The two would eventually collaborate on an adaptation of Lee Childs’ novel One Shot with the film Jack Reacher.
Jack Reacher would be McQuarrie’s first directing gig since 2000, and the 2012 release puts a 12-year gap between the two. All the promise that McQuarrie showed in The Way of the Gun came to full fruition in Jack Reacher. Cruise and McQuarrie working together on Jack Reacher feels not too dissimilar to Peter Yates and Steve McQueen working together on Bullitt, coming together to create a film that defines cinematic “cool”. Cruise got great classic bad-ass lines and got to kick a lot of ass in the process. Werner Herzog plays the villain and it’s as amazing as it sounds. McQuarrie even got a good performance out of living porridge-bowl Jai Courtney! Sadly the film underperformed at the box office, but made enough overseas to warrant an in-the-works sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.
Thankfully Cruise continued his good faith in selecting McQuarrie to direct Rogue Nation as he’s a natural fit for this franchise. It also helps that due to Cruise’s guidance of the films, the Mission: Impossible franchise has stood as one of the most director-friendly franchises in Hollywood. Each director in the series has gotten to leave their artistic mark on their respective films. Brian De Palma got to make his signature “Dirty Hitchcock” style of film with Mission: Impossible. John Woo got to make an absolutely nuts, completely unbelievable, yet amazing chaotic symphony of gunfights in Mission: Impossible II. J.J. Abrams got to explore his sense of conspiracy with his Mission: Impossible III. Brad Bird got to prove his chops in live-action filmmaking with his strong sense of storytelling and wonderment in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. McQuarrie will get to stretch his sense of practical effects and slick action to blockbuster levels of filmmaking come this Friday. After all, he’s probably the only working director that would strap Cruise to a plane while it’s taking off just for the sake of keeping the stunts real. One of my favorite things to do recently is show people that scene from the trailer and watch the look on their faces when I tell them that there is no green screen in what they’re seeing.
Both Cruise and McQuarrie need Rogue Nation to succeed if they’re going to continue making the films they want to. As I wrote about last year, Cruise is in one of his most creative periods of filmmaking, but also sadly one of his least profitable. I want McQuarrie to be able to do whatever film he wants, but I also would totally be fine if he did all of Cruise’s films for the rest of their careers. This weekend will be the deciding factor, as we watch Cruise’s impossible mission to break McQuarrie out of director’s jail come to its climax.