BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After breaking out of a Russian prison, secret agent Ethan Hunt and the Impossible Mission Force team set out to stop a Swedish peace proponent from stealing codes to a nuclear arsenal and detonate a device.
PROS: A refreshing ensemble cast led by Tom Cruise, with Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, and Jeremy Renner adding much life to every scene; two soon-to-be-famous set pieces; Brad Bird’s outstanding command of pace despite the movie’s length.
CONS: Inane nuclear weapons storyline; not enough time developed to either the principal or most of the secondary villains; tone at times too slight and diffident.
Shortly after the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) team breaks Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of prison in part by having recently-promoted field agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) hack into the computer system and thus freeing all prisoners, agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton) confirms his identity with a handheld retinal scanner and then jabs a swab into his mouth. “DNA,” she explains, causing Hunt to smile. “It’s me,” he assures her. We’ve come a long way since the cheesy latex masks of Brian De Palma’s execrable Mission: Impossible (1996) or even the microexplosives so prevalent in J.J. Abrams’s intermittently entertaining Mission: Impossible 3 (2006). Indeed, one of the pleasures of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is the banality of all of the spy gadgets so omnipresent in almost every frame, from digital camera contact lenses to eye-tracking virtual reality displays. It’s like something William Gibson might have written for the original series; the future has arrived, and it’s been unevenly distributed in IMF’s favor.
A good thing too, because they’re going to have their work cut out for them. While breaking into the Kremlin to uncover the identity of a courier known only as “Cobalt,” the team intercepts a message identifying them. As they escape, the Kremlin explodes, knocking Hunt unconscious. When he comes to, he finds himself the chief suspect in the eyes of the Russian agent Sidrov (Vladimir Mashkov). It is only after Hunt escapes from the hospital and is reacquainted with the IMF Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) and his assistant William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) that he learns the explosion was cover for nuclear strategist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) to steal launch codes to send a missile to the United States. Why? Something about nuclear detonation being the sole method of obtaining world peace. Or something. Hendricks’s rationale never makes much sense, nor is he given enough screen time to be an interesting villain. For all of the carefully set traps and masterful escapes, screenwriters André Nemec and Josh Applebaum could have added some weight and danger by providing their chief antagonist a good deal more depth. Only assassin Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux) registers any memorable screen villainy, and she isn’t on screen nearly long enough.
It’s easy to see why, however. Part of what makes the movie work is the leads, an ensemble cast that seems far more comfortable working together than in previous iterations. Of course Cruise is the focal point, as the only principal who has been in all four movies, but he’s joined by Pegg’s Benji, in fine comic form as the team’s gadget wizard–think James Bond’s Q for the slacker generation; Patton’s Jane Carter, who displays far more grace and self-possession than the previous movie’s Maggie Q (or, for that matter, femme fatale Thandie Newton in John Woo’s completely misguided M:I-2); and Renner’s Brandt, a desk jockey who might (or might not) have a few things he’s keeping from the IMF team. They play well off each other, and for the first time actually seem to share the screen with Cruise, as opposed to playing second fiddle to him. It makes Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol feel like an actual team effort. But it’s at the expense of any real threat, and harkens back to television–not the original Mission: Impossible, but an episode of The A-Team. If the fate of a few million people is at stake, shouldn’t there be, you know, a little sense of urgency? Maybe not; perhaps we’re just used to such terror now that it can’t scare us as it once did, as if we’ve all been given a small amount of PyrE by Gully Foyle.
And yet such a complaint misses a good deal of the point of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which operates less as a tight thriller but as a showcase for its impressive set pieces. One involves Hunt climbing one hundred stories up the side of the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, using gloves that grip the surface when slammed against it. That would be exciting enough (and seeing it on an IMAX screen did quite a bit to aggravate my own acrophobia); but as Hunt climbs the tower one of gloves malfunctions, making his climb even more precarious–and again, showing the now banal nature of the team’s futuristic spy gadgets. (Ask yourself: when was the last time you saw a spy movie where the gadgets malfunctioned?) And if that weren’t enough, Hunt must deal with a sandstorm blowing into Dubai. It’s all the more impressive because Cruise does not use a stunt double through the entire sequence. At the movie’s climax, Hunt and Hendricks engage in a melee in a parking garage with hydraulic platforms moving cars between levels–another standout.
If the cast works despite the weak script, the action is kept moving by Brad Bird, who with this film directs his first live-action feature, with real human beings. (Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves; the star is Cruise, after all.) After directing Ratatouille and The Incredibles, making a movie where the laws of physics aren’t coded for you must have seemed fairly daunting, yet he more than lives up to the challenge, not only in keeping the touch light but in ensuring the movie doesn’t drag during its middling second act. Bird, unlike the three previous directors, doesn’t quite have the auteur baggage to follow him, allowing for more free play with the scenes and characters. For once, the movie doesn’t unintentionally self-destruct midway through. Cruise may be Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol‘s star, but it’s Bird’s movie, and he makes the most of it with every frame.