[With the upcoming release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, we’re reposting our retrospective series on the Mission: Impossible franchise.]
It took two sequels to finally get it right, but Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is on par with the original Mission: Impossible even though they’re vastly different films. It’s far more comic than the previous movies, it adores its gadgetry, doesn’t invoke a heist, and finally comes to grips with creating a team dynamic instead of being “Ethan Hunt and Co. featuring Luther Stickell”. After 15 years of starring in this franchise and almost 30 of being a movie star, Tom Cruise had settled comfortably into being the calm veteran presence rather than needing to hog the limelight. Of course, he still gets all the best scenes, but at least there are distinctive supporting cast members, and the emphasis that Hunt can’t save the world by himself.
After a delightful prison break set to Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”, the movie is bonkers from the get-go by having Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and fellow IMF Agents Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) infiltrate the Kremlin and discover the identity of a nuclear zealot codenamed “Cobalt” and barely managing to escape before the Kremlin explodes. The IMF gets framed for the Kremlin bombing and disavowed by the President enacting “Ghost Protocol”. That means it’s up to the Hunt, Carter, Dunn, and analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) to go on the run, and stop Cobalt, aka nuclear strategist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), who wants to start nuclear war as a way of cleansing the planet.
Hendricks is a weak villain with a lazy motive, but the movie can also afford to leave the antagonist behind because it’s the first Mission: Impossible movie to put the emphasis on the team and make each member feel like a unique contributor with specific goals and a personality. We know who Ethan Hunt is by now, but the films have always struggled with balancing a team dynamic and letting Tom Cruise carry the day. This time out, everyone does their part and brings something unique to the table.
Bird, who is a master of storytelling (Tomorrowland will boggle my mind to no end on how and why it’s such a mess), wisely assembled the team by introducing them separately rather than all at once as in past movies. We already met Benji in Mission: Impossible III, and while I’m sure there are some who were upset that he took the tech guy role from Luther (Ving Rhames), Pegg is just better at comic relief, and comedy is a big part of Ghost Protocol. Carter comes in at the beginning, but her true introduction is her flashback explaining how a previous op went bad and her boyfriend/fellow agent Trevor Hanaway was killed by assassin Sabine Moreau (Lea Seydoux). Brandt comes in near the end of the first act, and has aspects of his character teased out along the way.
More importantly, each supporting character adds something to the story. Benji is the aforementioned comic relief (although the movie gets plenty of laughs elsewhere as well), Carter gets the emotional arc of trying to avenge Hanaway’s death while also making up for losing the nuclear codes in the first place, and Brandt is the audience surrogate who marvels at the ridiculousness around him. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Ghotocol, but on this latest viewing, it was Renner’s befuddled performance that really stood out.
By moving to more of a team dynamic, Ghost Protocol becomes the first film to really take the focus off of Ethan intentionally (Mission: Impossible II loses sight of Ethan because the movie is a goddamn mess), and Cruise seems fine with it. He’s settled back into the “point man” role the series initially laid out for Ethan, and that means he’ll do the showstopping stunts and plan the mission, but he doesn’t need to own the room. The cocky, “grinning idiot” is gone and he’s been replaced by an adult who’s okay faceplanting into the side of a building and almost plummeting to his death.
Which is good because Ghost Protocol is all about everything falling apart. Ghost Protocol is about forging a team in a baptism by fire, and it’s delightful to see their carefully calculated plan fall apart and have them survive on nothing but their wits and luck. The script, Bird’s direction, Michael Giacchino’s score, Robert Elswit’s cinematography, and Paul Hirsch’s editing all combine to give the movie a breathless feel that the other movies lack. The first film is tense, the second one is a disaster, the third is explosive, and the fourth is a rush.
Under Tom Cruise’s guidance, the Mission: Impossible franchise has become a unique entry in American blockbuster cinema and in his career. It’s a franchise that is amendable to a director’s vision, but also holds true to its star’s evolving personality, and its longevity is both fascinating and commendable even if the individual films vary wildly in quality. But that both the first movie and the fourth film should be so different and yet work so well speaks to the strength of both the spy action film and Cruise’s enduring charisma.
As its latest entry shows the franchise continuing to evolve and grow in new and exciting ways, the Mission: Impossible series has proved that while not every entry has been a success, overall it’s been a mission well worth accepting.
Tomorrow: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation