December 15, 2011


15 years ago, Brian de Palma turned Mission: Impossible, a well-regarded spy TV series into an exciting action-thriller, and Tom Cruise earned a career franchise he could call his own.  Then something went seriously wrong with John Woo‘s Mission: Impossible II, but J.J. AbramsMission: Impossible III picked the franchise back up with a fun, albeit empty-headed installment.  The only consistent element was Cruise, but sometimes even his charisma couldn’t overcome dull action scenes or shoddy storytelling.  Director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) doesn’t do dull action scenes or shoddy storytelling.  He never has, and he’s at the top of his game with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.  Bird has always put story first, but he never forgets to give the audience the brash, bold excitement only a big screen can bring.  Bolstered by a quick, sharp script, and a terrific ensemble, Bird delivers bone-crunching action, fleet-footed pacing, and the best Mission: Impossible yet.

After a thrilling escape from a Russian prison, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) barely has a moment to breathe before being called in for a new mission (should he choose to accept it).  Hunt and fellow IMF agents Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and former technician and now field agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) head to the Kremlin to discover the identity of a terrorist code-named “Cobalt” (Michael Nyqvist).  However, the mission goes sideways, the team is forced to abort, but on their way out the door, the Kremlin explodes, and the IMF takes the blame.  It’s a cover for Cobalt to steal nuclear launch codes, but the U.S. President initiates “Ghost Protocol”, which disbands the IMF and disavows all its agents.  However, the Secretary of Defense (Tom Wilkinson) gives Ethan and his team an alternative: find Cobalt, recover the codes, and stop nuclear apocalypse.  Accompanied by IMF analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), the team has to take on their mission with zero outside support and a fistful of awesome gadgets.

When post-Cold War films make Russia the enemy in an attempt to play off the tensions of the Cold War, it rarely works.  It feels more like a way to play it safe, ignore the modern world, and as a result the conflict feels artificial.  But it works with Mission: Impossible because the original TV series was created when the Cold War shaped our world.  When Ghost Protocol recreates that conflict, it feels authentic instead of nostalgic or timid.  But then the script and Bird have the smarts to expand the movie, take it to new locales, and let us know that the technology may be modern, but the stakes come from the old specter of nuclear annihilation.  The attempt to recover nuclear war codes comes off as classic rather than stale.

Since we all know what nuclear war does, we automatically understand the stakes and we don’t have to fool around with convoluted villains and their nefarious plots.  Philip Seymour Hoffman did a brilliant job playing the heavy in the last movie and rather than try to out-do him, Ghost Protocol lets the villain stand as a plot-point who drives the IMF team to crazy, superb, spectacular missions..  The prison escape cold open provides an appetizer of the intense set pieces to come, and those set pieces do not disappoint.  The action demands to be seen in IMAX, but the story will work no matter the size of the screen.

At the outset, I was worried the film would rely to heavily on consumer gadgets like iPhones and iPads.  Thankfully, Ghost Protocol quickly moves on to some of the most brilliant gadgets I’ve ever seen in a movie.   They’re creative, intelligent, and it makes Ethan’s harness trick in the first movie seem quaint by comparison.  But Bird knows he can’t give the IMF team all of the advantages.  Ghost Protocol is about throwing up constant barriers to their success.  It’s fun to watch the execution of best laid plans, but it’s even better to see them come apart and force the team to improvise.  That’s where Mission: Impossible gets its excitement.  Oh, and the sound design.  And the cinematography.  And the editing.  And Michael Giacchino‘s brilliant score which doesn’t feel like a re-tread of his Incredibles score (and that’s surprising since The Incredibles music was clearly influenced by the Mission: Impossible theme).  Live-action doesn’t offer the same freedom as animation when it comes to set pieces, but Bird uses the weight of the real world to his advantage, although three are a few cartoonish moments like Ethan apparently having a face-bones of steel.

But it all comes back to story and characters and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol puts together the best IMF team in the series.  Cruise continues to carry Hunt as a seasoned pro who’s greatest strength is his talent to deal with situations in the moment while still sporting a big grin on his face (the one made of steel; not even a nosebleed from this guy).  Aside from some brief cameos, the only returning character is Benji and Simon Pegg delivers the comic relief in spades.  Great comedy is like music: it has a beat and a rhythm, but brilliant comic actors like Pegg know how to play the song and make it their own through unexpected expressions, timing, and delivery.  Paula Patton not only smolders, but proves herself an equal member of the team rather than Ethan’s potential love-interest.  More importantly, she gets her own character arc that shows she has an outer life beyond Ethan’s story.  And Renner gets to play it all with comedy, beatdowns, drama, and proves Brandt to be Ethan’s equal.

There was some confusion last year when it was reported that Renner would be taking over the franchise but Cruise would still be co-starring.  Ghost Protocol clears that up: it’s a team movie now—or at least that’s what it should be from now on.  Previous Mission: Impossible movies are The Ethan Hunt Show with the IMF Players.  The fourth Mission: Impossible changes the game by making each member of the team crucial to the mission’s success.  Ethan is still the leader, but each agent has to accomplish their own objectives independently in order to make the team’s mission a success.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is just about everything you could ask for from a blockbuster.  There are some silly moments but never to the point where we’re taken out of the movie.  There’s a perfect understanding that Mission: Impossible shouldn’t try to be the Bourne films.  It’s not about gritty realism.  It’s about colorful characters, cool gadgets, and kick-ass action.  Brad Bird has made not only the best Mission: Impossible, but one of the best action movies of the past several years.

Rating: A


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