(This review was originally published on December 25, 2011 at The Rogers Revue)
The collaboration of director J.J. Abrams and Tom Cruise in 2006′s “Mission:Impossible III” marked a vast improvement over John Woo’s awkwardly trendy, over-stylized sequel six years prior. Also referred to as ‘Me:Too’, Woo’s crossover effort seemed self-indulgent for Cruise and unnaturally trigger-happy for the series, a flash-in-the-pan box office juggernaut to follow the success of Brian De Palma’s sleepy 1996 noir-based original. So here we are at number four, ditching the Roman numeral for the mysterious subtitle “Ghost Protocol”, which sounds vaguely like something out of Tom Clancy’s “Rainbow Six” collection. With the hope that director Brad Bird would continue the momentum given to the stalling franchise by Abrams five years earlier, I found myself succumbing to some pretty high expectations. Thankfully, just a few minutes in to “Ghost Protocol”‘s opening prison break sequence, I felt assured that disappointment was not imminent. Thirty minutes later, when Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is sprinting from the grounds of the Kremlin as it bursts apart in a succession of massive explosions reminiscent of “War of the Worlds”, I found myself already praying for an ‘M:I5’.
Without burning the trailer highlights prematurely, “Mission:Impossible Ghost Protocol” endures its running time with almost mechanical efficiency, tempering the CGI with massive sets and jaw-dropping stunts. Oscar-winner Bird, whose first live-action film is every bit as animated as his Pixar achievements “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille”, imbues this action epic with as much creative energy as a year’s worth of big budget popcorn fare. With several scenes shot in IMAX, not the least of which is Cruise scaling the sleek exterior of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, Bird and cinematographer Robert Elswit (“The Town”, the upcoming “Bourne Legacy”) seem to have re-introduced the action film with the simple philosophy that bigger can be better, if executed properly. Abrams’ production outfit Bad Robot (with co-producer Bryan Burk)and Cruise’s new company re-partnering with Paramount has taken the series to a new level on roughly the same budget as its predecessor. So if you’ve condemned Cruise over the past few years, I implore you: get over it. Paramount certainly did, and the equilibrium has resulted in a something pretty spectacular.
In the spirit of the TV series, “Ghost Protocol”‘s IMF crew is afforded considerably more attention than in any of the previous film installments (which you might have surmised from the unprecedented group-themed promo art). Jeremy Renner, whose franchise trifecta also includes this year’s “The Avengers” and “The Bourne Legacy”, plays intelligence analyst William Brandt, an ex-field agent who takes on some traditionally Cruise-exclusive duties (the trademark free-fall into a secured computer server area, for example). And he plays it with surprising depth. While Cruise’s role as Ethan Hunt (and as his own stunt double) continues to be a box office draw, it’s apparent that this mission is no longer a one man endeavor, suggesting that a baton-handing might one day transpire.
Smartly scripted by television veterans Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec (who shared time working on Abrams’ revered spy series “Alias”), “Ghost Protocol” is a cohesive, character-driven story set in the middle of some very ambitious choreography and cutting-edge camera work. Ethan Hunt, now barely the same character introduced to us in 1996, is sprung from a Moscow prison by fledgling field agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and newcomer Jane Carter (Paula Patton). The reason for Hunt’s incarceration is initially withheld, as a series of expository flashbacks brief us on the existence of a mysterious operative named Cobalt who plans on initiating a nuclear strike on the U.S.. Framed for a bombing at the Kremlin while attempting to extract information from its archives, the IMF team find themselves disavowed under an executive directive called ‘ghost protocol’. After the IMF secretary (an uncredited Tom Wilkinson) is assassinated during a covert meeting with Hunt, the group reconvenes to track down Cobalt, now identified as a man named Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist, the “Millennium” trilogy).
In between massive scenes like the destruction of the Kremlin, a blind car chase in a city-engulfing sandstorm and Cruise’s well advertised climb on the Burj Khalifa (not to mention lots of running) are some great interactions with Pegg, Patton and Renner. As the only returning cast member from “M:I3” (with the exception of Cruise and a couple of unexpected cameos), Pegg’s expanded role as Benji Dunn delivers the usual charm and endearing wit that makes him consistently likable. Paula Patton performs her own fight scenes as agent Carter, most impressively with French assassin Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux), and proves to be stunning throughout.
Another important component in “Ghost Protocol”‘s unfaltering pace is Grammy and Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, who scored the last “Mission:Impossible” installment and both of Bird’s Pixar features. Layered with Elswit’s cinematography and Paul Hirsch’s clean editing, the flawed particulars of the plot become almost irrelevant (in the spirit of belief suspension, I’ll refrain from elaborating). Curiously, that doesn’t include the teams cache of hi-tech resources. Replacing the far-fetched gadgetry of the genre’s heyday is a full spectrum of honest-to-goodness Apple products, a clever marketing campaign suggesting that technology has finally caught up with fantasy. Even the BMW i8 concept car looks crazier than fiction.
Unfortunately, I was not able to enjoy the film in the spectacular 70mm IMAX format in which at least 30 minutes of its action sequences were intended to be viewed, but my enjoyment nevertheless should reinforce its entertainment value on a regular screen. Needless to say, I’m glad that Bird opted for IMAX over the gimmicky 3D (or money-grubbing 2D post-conversion) that is becoming a prerequisite for Hollywood action films these days. That said, I suggest you get yourself to a true IMAX screen and enjoy the cinematography in all its vertigo-inducing glory (for DC area filmgoers, that would be the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly). In the end, I expect you’ll walk out of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” thinking, ‘now that was $150 million well spent!‘