I won’t be alone in writing that this is pretty well the benchmark film for a summer blockbuster that wants to make some money but doesn’t want particularly to upset the apple cart. It’s efficiently put together, and I think I agree with Robbie Collins that Tom Cruise himself is the best special effect in the film. On the level of popcorn entertainment, this may be the best film in the series (I haven’t seen JJ Abrahms’ outing in the director’s chair). Ghost Protocol felt very much like a straightforward heist film with a bit of spy gimmickry, but Rogue Nation actually has some real spy DNA in it, mainly introduced through the pivotal character of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a British foil for Ethan Hunt. The central question for Espionage Thrillers is in some ways always about who is trustworthy, and Ilsa provides just enough ambiguity on that front to mean the film isn’t pure action, though it stops far short of the interest in trust and identity that MI2 had. Ilsa is virtually the only interesting or memorable facet of this film, but there’s a problem.
In a way, Ilsa highlights the built-in misogyny of the basic story architecture: where is Jane (Paula Patton), who was portrayed in the wrap-scene of “Ghost Protocol” as just the fourth member of the team (and I think we can roll back to ask where Nyah (Thandie Newton) from MI2 got packed off to)? You need a new woman each film to keep the interest alive, am I right? I’ve got £50 that says when MI6 rolls around Ilsa Faust won’t even be a throw-away line. Naturally, this film spectacularly fails the Bechdel test with just the one female character of any sort. In gender political terms, the one smart play this movie makes is to not try and make the relationship between Ilsa and Ethan in the least bit romantic, and the handful of critics I’ve seen complaining about the lack of sexual chemistry between the two just seem to be missing the point. On the other hand, is a sublimated fantasy really any healthier? I think it’s significant that the automatic interpretation of her function has been as a primarly love interest. Tom Cruise may be the limiting factor here, since for a romantic relationship the age difference between Cruise and Ferguson would be bordering on creepy if we could admit just how old he actually is (it just, just, meets the Victorian rule of dividing the age by 2 and adding 7).
Like several other very successful genre outings recently, it tries to work around it’s inherent sexist shortcomings by making Ilsa a match for Ethan Hunt. Ilsa does virtually everything that Ethan does, and even has her own impressive Boss Fight near the end of the film. But kids, it doesn’t matter how awesome your female foil for the hero is, because that is just part of the fantasy she embodies for the straight-male-gaze audience. Having retained any of the female cast from previous iterations of the formula would help reduce this problem, especially if either of Hunt’s love interests from MI2 or MI3 were on hand to eradicate the notion of Faust as a love interest. I think I’d more than happily watch MI6 following the exploits of Ilsa instead of Ethan, but I think it’d be a safe wager that hell would freeze over before Hollywood would go down that route.
What makes MI5 so dangerous in gender political terms is that these structural features of the film have no really odious expressions. There is, for example, no scene equivalent to the leering of Fast7. We have Faust emerge from a pool in a swimming costume, but the scene is shot mid-distance with other characters in frame, and there is no accompanying commentary from the male cast. We’re treated to just as many shots of a shirtless Tom Cruise. Indeed, we have no overt sexist comments at all – I think it may not even be discussed that Faust is a woman, so I expect with almost totally invisible changes the film could be re-shot with Faust as a man. All of which is to say, the deep structural imbalance here has gone unremarked and the film has gotten a pass from the main body of critics. I expect anyone complaining about it as sexist will face the dual counter-claims that there are far far worse films (all too true) and that being grumpy about there being only two female characters on screen for the whole running time is just political correctness gone mad. Well, one of those characters is executed to motivate a male lead, and the other is a pure fantasy only partially redeemed by dodging the bullet of romantic entanglement with the lead male. The point is just that the film could have done better with incredible ease by replacing any of the ancillary cast (senators, CIA operatives, etc) with women, or simply retaining the woman they already had in the core cast from the previous film, who’d fit into the scheme just as well as Jeremy Renner, but who is less famous.
MI5 was great fun, but really, we need to do better than hide the gender imbalance by taking the rough edges off. There was a quote recently from Justice Ginsberg who said she’d consider gender equity achieved when all 9 supreme court justices were women.