The Cold War, for all its multifaceted awfulness, lined the pockets of many a writer, particularly those in the espionage genre. After all, there was a readily identifiable, ripped-from-the-headlines antagonist: the nefarious Soviet Union and its proxies. Fighting global Communism gave Western secret agents not only the license to kill, but licenses to seduce, betray, assault, abuse, and cause untold millions of dollars in property damage. Even on occasions when Soviet and Western operatives teamed up to face a bigger threat, there were tensions and cross-cultural misunderstandings to be exploited. Of course, it’s always easy to critique decades after the fact, and for many, the nostalgia filter is as sturdy as the Berlin Wall used to be. Love them or hate them, the Cold War years gave birth to undeniably impactful spy franchises, James Bond and Mission: Impossible among them. Half a century of wars, seismic geopolitical shifts, and franchise reboots later, and both series are still very much alive. Not only that, but in an introspective (sort of) feat that wouldn’t have been possible years ago, both find themselves grappling with their very reasons for existing in this day and age. Paradoxically, rather than using that as an opportunity to break new ground, both have instead delved into their respective pasts, with decidedly mixed results.
Both 2015 releases have a remarkably similar plot, to the extent that plagiarism accusations abounded post-release. In both films, the venerable spy agency (MI6 and IMF, respectively) is called to account for its excess and questionable methods and put under the watchful eye of a skeptical bureaucrat (Andrew Scott and Alec Baldwin, respectively). Despite this added scrutiny, the protagonists (Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt) push the envelope to take down a nefarious global organization (SPECTRE and The Syndicate).
For fans of these series, the nostalgia factor is high. Not only does Spectre bring back the eponymous organization, but there are homages galore to prior entries. Snowy mountain chases, deadly fisticuffs aboard trains, and love interests with criminal parents all make an appearance here, as does criminal mastermind Blofeld (Christoph Waltz, who plays the character under an alias for a good chunk of the film) and his white cat. Those who objected to previous Daniel Craig entries being too Bourne-like will have enough here to conceivably tilt their criticism the other way. For its part, Rogue Nation embraces disguises, gadgets, and teamwork, all features of the original television series that were sometimes absent in previous cinematic outings.
Both films, however, offer more than just reference and in-jokes. Directors Sam Mendes and Christopher McQuarrie keep a brisk pace and provide plenty of thrilling action set pieces. By now, Craig and Cruise have had plenty of time to grow into these roles and play them with competence and confidence. They are matched by amusing comic-relief tech support (Ben Whishaw as a dry-witted Q and Simon Pegg doing Simon Pegg things as Benji Dunn), leading ladies who defy expectations (Leya Sedoux’s Dr. Swann initially regards Bond as a crazed thug while Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust leavers viewers guessing as to her true allegiance), and chillingly cold villains (Waltz and Sean Harris).
The biggest distinction here lies in the writing. Rogue Nation incorporates plenty of twists and strains credibility at times, but it avoids biting off more than it can chew. Positioning its antagonists as former spies gone rogue, it shows what might happen if IMF lost its way. Spectre, on the other hand, suffers from overreach. It’s attempt to position SPECTRE as the driving force behind events of the previous three films comes across as an awkward retcon while giving Blofeld a more personal connection to Bond and a revenge-based motivation arguably cheapens the character. Moreover, while Rogue Nation is in some ways an improvement over its back-to-basics predecessor, the previous Bond film, Skyfall, was easily the best Bond film in 20 years and thus gave Spectre too high a bar to reach.
Looking ahead, it is unlikely that either franchise will come to a crashing halt any time soon, but both will need to adapt to survive. The search is already on for Craig’s replacement, and the 53-year-old Cruise cannot run and jump forever. Last year, these franchises showed us the allure of classic espionage. Here’s hoping they can find a way to look forward as well as back.
Rogue Nation: 7.75/10