Welcome back to Look of the Week, celebrating the best in TV and film sartorial excellence, past and present, across sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and other genre classics!
We're going back 12 years, to the release of Mission: Impossible III, which opened in theaters May 5, 2006, to honor Maggie Q. Since appearing as one of Ethan Hunt’s team members, Q has gone on to kick ass in leading roles on television shows such as Nikita—and look incredibly stylish while doing so.
The women of Mission: Impossible are akin to those in the Bond franchise, but without the reductive "Bond girl" moniker. Typically, there is a new one with each outing, they are formidable in a fight, and they have the wardrobe to match. Alluring frocks are very much part of their sartorial prowess, and a romantic involvement with the lead is not unexpected. In a refreshing twist in Mission: Impossible III, there are not one but two women who are part of Ethan Hunt’s team—and neither is fulfilling the love interest role. In fact Hunt has settled down; a quickie wedding takes place just before he leaps back into duty.
During the press tour for the 2006 outing, it looked like Keri Russell would be front and center as the newest addition to the team. But Felicity co-creator J.J. Abrams had different plans for Russell; her character dies early in the film, a la Janet Leigh in Psycho. Instead, Maggie Q, in her first major U.S. film role, got to play both the tough tactical gear-clad assignment and the fancy frock-wearing "clumsy" party guest as IMF Agent Zhen Lei.
Reviews for Mission: Impossible III from 2006 allude to Maggie Q’s modeling career in much the same way they mention Russell’s Felicity credentials and Tom Cruise’s recent couch-jumping antics, which took place the year before. But Q is more than the “decorative” adjective bestowed upon her by The New York Times.This was J.J. Abrams' first film directing gig, but five seasons of Alias had prepared him in the art of dressing spies for big set-piece moments. In the Alias pilot, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) fakes it as the drunk girl looking for the bathroom to evade suspicion; similarly, Zhen Lei spills a glass of red wine over Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as part of their plan to kidnap him at a black-tie charity event. The common thread (other than the director)? Both women are in eye-catching crimson gowns.
The cut of the red gown from Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood is undeniably captivating. They are in Vatican City, but thankfully not the actual Vatican, given that this frock definitely flouts the dress code with how much skin is on show. The slit is Angelina-Jolie-at-the-Oscars thigh-high, it is pretty much backless, and it has strategic cut-outs—but then again it's meant to distract, not fight in. Zhen also has the task of photographing Davian so they can make the classic Mission: Impossible lifelike mask. Easily done with a compact mirror fitted with the right tech.Q is far more memorable than other cast newcomer Jonathan Rhys Meyers; on the scale of things for female characters to do, the Mission: Impossible movies have been getting progressively better with each installment. Before the red dress reveal, Zhen has already leaped through two windows; she’s not just here to look pretty. Q also doesn’t get sidelined with a damsel-in-distress arc, as Michelle Monaghan and Keri Russell unfortunately do. She rides up front in speedboats, takes part in the Shanghai operation (where she takes a bullet for her trouble), and blows up the orange Lamborghini she arrives at the party in.
There is a way to balance both looking attractive and having agency in a movie franchise like this, to be part of the team not only because you look good. My one major Zhen Lei-related grumble is that she hasn’t returned for another installment. Mission: Impossible III was also Simon Pegg’s first appearance, and since then his character Benji has been in every subsequent movie. The same, sadly, cannot be said for Q.
Rogue Nation director Christopher McQuarrie did note that Q and Paula Patton (who was cast in the follow-up film) were approached to reprise their roles and break the "one and done" streak, but neither was available. Q by this point had already played another role dealing with shady government organizations. In fact, the Season 1 Nikita artwork features Q in a red dress that is striking in its similarity to her Mission: Impossible gown.
Ethan Hunt will be leaping from buildings again this summer in Mission: Impossible - Fallout, and both Michelle Monaghan and Rebecca Ferguson will reprise their roles. Hopefully, Maggie Q will also return as Zhen Lei, with a bag packed with tactical gear, leather jackets, and another stunning frock. There is room for more than one woman on this team.