Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation | 2015
Time was, sequels got increasingly cheaper and tattier with time (Jaws IV, Superman IV…) but, along with the Fast And Furious franchise, the Mission: Impossible series shows no sign of running out of steam just yet.
And though there’s nothing startlingly new about Rogue Nation, it breezes enjoyably along from one belting set piece to another.
The much-touted pre-credits sequence sees Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) clinging to an Airbus A400M Atlas stuffed with biowarfare material as it takes off from an airfield in ‘Minsk’. No matter how much CGI improves, nothing matches the breathtaking immediacy of a real physical stunt (yes, I know wires and safety harnesses have been removed digitally). The ‘Belorussian’ airfield is RAF Wittering, just south of the village of Stamford in Lincolnshire (although, confusingly, its runways actually cross the boundary between Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire).
After a rousing burst of the theme tune, the film proper begins in the heart of London’s West End with Hunt emerging from Piccadilly Circus underground station and heading up major shopping thoroughfare Regent Street to find a little record shop tucked away in a side street where he’s to get his briefing.
The vinyl store, which sells cool jazz recordings and still has old-school listening booths, is sadly just an invention. In reality it’s a dry cleaning business, Classi Clean, 5 Air Street, between Regent Street and Piccadilly.
It seems IMF has been infiltrated and Hunt finds himself captured and held prisoner until he's unexpectedly freed by the mysterious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson).
The film has been described as a ‘love letter to London’, but it’s a rather nostalgic view of the city, where you can not only find a vintage record shop in the heart of town, but every street has a couple of fully-functioning, non-vandalised red telephone phone boxes.
After escaping the dungeon (and what decent West End basement doesn’t have one?), Hunt phones the IMF organisation from one of those very boxes on Great Windmill Street off Shaftesbury Avenue, just north of Piccadilly Circus. The boxes are real, though there aren’t quite as many of them as appear in the film.
In the background stands the Windmill Theatre, famous for staging the first – artistically – nude revue shows in the capital, and for remaining open every night during the German Blitz on the capital during WWII. ‘We never closed’ became its proud boast. Many of the country’s most famous comics learned their craft here, entertaining the punters between the displays of pulchritude. The theatre’s colourful history is dramatised in Stephen Frears’s 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents, with Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins.
The ‘Washington DC’ office interiors, where nasty CIA chief Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is hell bent on dismantling the reckless IMF organisation, is Langleybury Manor, King’s Langley in Hertfordshire, a deserted manor house and former school often used for film shoots – much of Mike Leigh’s 1999 Gilbert and Sullivan pic, Topsy Turvy, was filmed here.
Now a wanted man, Hunt goes into hiding, while sidekick Benji (Simon Pegg) bravely feigns ignorance as to his friends whereabouts.
He’s happy to take a break from the relentless questioning when he wins a couple of tickets to a prestigious opera gala in Vienna.
No sooner has he arrived in the Austrian capital than he’s handed a mysterious package and a pair of whizzo communication specs, which put him in touch with Ethan, and let him know that he’s not here on holiday.
The Austrian Chancellor is attending the same performance of Puccini’s Turandot (which is why we’ve been hearing hints of Nessun Dorma on the soundtrack), as well as several nefarious individuals, including Ilsa Faust, carrying guns.
Foiling (temporarily) an assassination attempt on the Chancellor, Ethan and Ilsa remain persons of interest and are only able to escape the scene by rappelling from the roof of the theatre. Yes, another real stunt, and that really is the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), Opernring 2.
Following a brief car chase, Ethan leaves Ilsa to return to her undercover work with the Syndicate and joins Benji in a hi-tech field office housed in humble river barge for a quick debriefing.
The river is not the beautiful blue Danube, nor is that a train from the Viennese Metro rattling over the bridge in the background. It’s the District and Hammersmith & City lines of the London Underground crossing the Lee Navigation Canal in Bromley-By-Bow in London’s East End.
The boat mooring is just off Three Mills Lane, northeast of Bromley-By-Bow station. The three mills are former working mills on the River Lea, where there’ve been tidal mills since the 11th century. It’s claimed that the House Mill (a Grade I listed building open to visitors on Sunday afternoons during the summer) remains the largest tidal mill in the world.
Three Mills Island alongside is home to the relatively new 3 Mills Studios, a 10-acre complex which has hosted filming for such productions as 2015’s Mr Holmes, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, Danny Boyle’s caper thriller Trance and Wes Anderson’s stop-motion version of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr Fox.
A hint dropped by Ilsa leads to Morocco, where a file supposedly containing a ledger of all Syndicate operatives is held on a supercomputer, inaccessibly situated beneath a power plant.
Not the traditional cluster of blackened smokestacks, the sleek 21st century plant they need to infiltrate is Fawley Power Station, an oil-fired power station on the western side of Southampton Water between the villages of Fawley and Calshot in Hampshire.
This is Mission: Impossible not Mission: Quite Difficult and Hunt manages to gain access via the water cooling system in a lung-busting, free-swimming sequence. He manages to trick the security system long enough for Benji to download the file (whatever happened to those dinky little micro cameras spy movies once relied on?).
There’s another chase as the Syndicate’s bikes chase Hunt’s BMW M3 Sedan across the real Morocco, along the Marrakech Highway, which had to be closed for 14 days. The chase roars down the steps before the gate of the Kasbah of the Udayas, in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, and through the Old Medina and Derb Sultan districts of Casablanca, before performing a spectacular backflip in front of the city’s Mosque Hassan II. Built in 1993, of marble on a promontory overlooking the Atlantic, this is the largest in mosque in the whole of Africa.
Flip-flopping between employers, Ilsa makes off with the vital memory stick (not before Benji has managed to make a copy) and scoots back to London, crossing Westminster Bridge to meet Atlee (Simon McBurney), the head of British Intelligence, on the Thames Embankment across the river from the Houses of Parliament.
After handing over the info, Ilsa is instructed to return undercover and in no time she’s meeting up again with the organisation’s mastermind, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), in Brompton Cemetery, Old Brompton Road, Earl’s Court, SW5.
The splendid Victorian cemetery has been getting a lot of screen time recently – remember the bloody revenge killing in (again) David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, or sinister Lord Blackwood rising from the dead in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes or Lord George's funeral in the same director's The Gentlemen? You may even recognise its chapel, glimpsed in the background, as the ‘Russian’ church in which Natalya hides out in Goldeneye.
You’ll probably struggle, though, to recognise much of King’s Cross Station, where the IMF team meets up with Ilsa and where Benji gets abducted. The open, and very empty, concourse in front of platforms 4 to 8 was disguised with plenty of set dressing, and little of what you can see exists apart from the trains.
This is of course the terminal to catch the Hogwarts Express – if you want the photo op, head to the station’s new west concourse, where there’s a queue to have your picture taken with a shopping trolley embedded into the wall (alongside the Harry Potter shop). If you want the real filming location of Platform 9 ¾, it’s here, between Platforms 4 and 5.
The vacant ‘warehouse’ in which the IMF team gathers is an upper floor of the Farmiloe Building, 28-36 St John Street in Clerkenwell, EC1 – the exterior of which was another location featured in Eastern Promises. Now used as an event space and filming location, the empty Farmiloe previously provided interiors for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises as well as the same director’s Inception, and appeared as the MI6 HQ in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Krays biopic Legend, with Tom Hardy.
It’s just across the road from the Farmiloe, on St John Street with the entrance to the old Smithfield Market in the background, that Brandt (Jeremy Renner) phones Hunley. This phone box, however, is nothing more than a movie prop.
Accessing the file on the memory stick turns out to be no simple task, since its voice recognition system requires the cooperation of the British Prime Minister. Yes, it’s time for one of those slickly ingenious IMF sting operations.
This takes place at a sumptuous black-tie charity ball, held in the Baroque grandeur of Blenheim Palace, home of the Dukes of Marlborough and birthplace of Winston Churchill, near the village of Woodstock in Oxfordshire.
The tapestry in the background depicts the the Duke of Marlborough's victory at the 1704 Battle of Blenheim, after which the house is named.
The vast mansion has been a signifier of great wealth and power in such productions as Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet (where it became the ‘Castle of Elsinore’), the 1998 screen version of cult TV show The Avengers (as ‘Hallucinogen Hall’) and 2016 Bond movie Spectre (as the 'Italian' palazzo). Its formal gardens were used as a backdrop for Stanley Kubrick’s 1974 masterpiece, Barry Lyndon.
The Syndicate, like IMF and British Intelligence, likes to arrange its meetings alongside recognisable London landmarks, and the return of Benji is staged at a terrace restaurant on the Thames riverside in front of the Tower of London, and in the shadow of the Victorian Gothic Tower Bridge.
Once again, this is a bit of trickery. There’s no al fresco restaurant here, but a large, cobbled open space which, during daylight hours, is crammed with tourists getting that unmissable selfie with the iconic bridge in the background. Remember Michael Caine taking Shelley Winters’ photo here in Alfie back in the Sixties?
In a set-up oddly reminiscent of TV’s Sherlock, long-distance negotiations with Lane ensure that a bomb strapped to Benji is disarmed, but Lane’s goons immediately close in and Ethan and Isla find themselves scurrying through benighted passageways – though nowhere near the Tower of London.
They emerge from Bell Yard alongside the Royal Courts of Justice onto The Strand, WC2, alongside, yes, another couple of red phone boxes – and they’re real ones too.
The pair duck into the entrance of the quaintly-named Middle Temple, the usually sedate olde worlde centre of the legal profession, a maze of quiet quadrangles of law offices with the names of the lawyers are still painstakingly painted on the doorways.
They’re chased through the little squares and darkened alleyways, with Ethan Hunt crashing out of a window by the steps at the southeast corner of Elm Court.
Lane is ultimately cornered in the crooked little street called Austin Friars, off Old Broad Street, behind the Bank of England in the City of London.
It’s named after an Augustinian priory, which stood on the site until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, and the area was home to Thomas Cromwell, the political schemer and hero of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies novels.