Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation makes it clear that Tom Cruise is the Fred Astaire of action movies. Whether he’s hanging from the side of an airplane, fighting a man twice his size on a swinging catwalk, free-diving a pressurized, swirling chamber of water, or maneuvering Casablanca’s tight alleys in a high-speed chase—yes, all those things and more happen in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation—Cruise does it all with fluid grace and debonair bravado. You’ll want to do what he does. You’ll believe the stunts are real, because so much of them are. You’ll believe it’s worth whatever it costs to be able to bend the rules of physics like it seems that Tom Cruise does in this movie.
And if Tom Cruise is the Fred Astaire of action movies, then in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, he’s finally found his Ginger Rogers. Rebecca Ferguson is as remarkable as Cruise is in every action scene she’s in. Ferguson plays “Ilsa,” “Ethan Hunt’s” key companion/adversary in this installment in the franchise. Their relationship is like something out of a Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn movie. (There’s even a visual nod to Charade in the movie’s final act that I can’t believe is accidental.) “Ilsa” is the best character to emerge from this series since “Ethan Hunt” was introduced in the first film, and Ferguson is Cruise’s equal in every sense. And, as the old joke goes, she frequently does everything he does… only backwards and wearing high heels. The movie is worth seeing for the action scenes; it’s worth praising for the presence and performance of Rebecca Ferguson.
The plot of the film involves a select group of disaffected, disavowed, and supposedly deceased super spies from around the world who have banded together to put their espionage skills to nefarious use toppling governments and causing chaos. Super spy Ethan Hunt and his IMF team are the only ones who can stop them, of course. There are some quaint topical resonances to contemporary espionage practices if you want to make those thematic leaps, but the leaps the movie is interested in are the ones Cruise makes onto airplanes, from motorbikes, and down into water turbine tunnels. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is all about the stunts. The plot is merely the frame that contains them.
Since we’re keenly interested in the theological aspects of popular films here, it’s worth asking the question: How might we think theologically about action movies like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation? Perhaps that’s a bogus question. After all, isn’t the purpose of a stunt-spectacular simply to amaze audiences? Action movies might make your jaw drop, but is there anything deeper to them than that? Should there be?
The Bible verse that kept racing through my mind as I watched Tom Cruise race through Casablanca and London’s streets was Psalm 139:14 – “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” The Mission: Impossible movies have staked their reputation on featuring real stunt work that puts real men and women—often Tom Cruise himself—in actual peril. Granted, they are never in as much peril as they seem to be in when the final film is pieced together, but there is a great deal of authenticity to the stunts they do in these films.
There’s a moment in this movie where Tom Cruise, while rounding a corner on a motorcycle during a chase, brushes his blue-jeaned knee against the pavement. He visibly winces, as if the scrape is unintentional and actually painful. I saw no reason to believe it wasn’t real. One brush with asphalt does not an authentic stunt prove, but it is indicative of the kind of non-green screen stunt work happening in this film. Stunt women and men are injured on the job all the time. They are all the time attempting and completing fantastic feats of daring do.
“Fearfully and wonderfully made” – it is remarkable what we humans are capable of, how God has fashioned us, both physically and mentally, to conceive and accomplish so much. Our bodies are so fragile and yet so functional. When God “wove us together in that secret place,” God really did do wonderful work.
And we’re not wonderfully made only when we are in peak physical condition, as the stunt team most certainly must be in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. On the way home from the press screening, I heard an interview on the TED Radio Hour with Hugh Herr, a man who, after losing both his legs in a climbing accident, learned mechanical and electrical engineering and now invents new, prosthetic legs that are enabling amputees to do remarkable things that were unthinkable a short time ago. Our minds and spirits are maybe more wonderful and resilient than our bodies. The Creator God made us, and God created us to create. We’re “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and we make fearfully wonderful things ourselves. And sometimes we have do it backwards while wearing high heels.
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