I’ve really enjoyed all three Mission: Impossible films, though none of them quite reached perfection in my mind. Probably my favorite part of all three films is the first 30 minutes of the first one, where we got to see an awesome team of super-spies engaged in some really fun, twisty covert operations. Then, of course, they all get killed off and the film (and the sequels) turns into the Tom Cruise super-hero show. J.J. Abrams’ third installment was a big step back in the right direction, but even in that film I felt the team was too-quickly sidelined.
What a delight it is to report, then, that I think the latest installment, Ghost Protocol, is the strongest film in the series so far! I saw the film in huge, glorious IMAX, which is how I highly recommend that you see it as well. People are all atwitter about 3-D these days, but I think that seeing a film in IMAX represents a far more immersive experience than the often-distracting 3-D effects. (Although I did just see Martin Scorsese’s new film, Hugo, in wonderful 3-D — check back here on Wednesday for my full review). Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible film takes full advantage of the huge canvas that IMAX has to offer.
I’ve long-worshipped Brad Bird, from his work on The Simpsons to his amazing animated films The Iron Giant (GO SEE IT right now, you won’t regret it), The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is Mr. Bird’s live-action directorial debut, and it represents a triumphant announcement of an incredible talent.
The action in this film is phenomenal. Ghost Protocol is alive with action, from start-to-finish. This film MOVES. There are so many gleefully inventive set-pieces that I hardly know where to begin. There’s the opening break-out from a Russian prison, with the film’s playful withholding of the identity of the man being rescued. There’s the fiendishly clever way the IMF team infiltrates the Kremlin. (I LOVE the screen employed by Ethan and Benji in the hallway.) Then there’s the gangbusters sequence in which Ethan (Tom Cruise) is forced to scale the exterior of the tallest skyscraper in Dubai. In the trailers, I actually thought that scene looked rather silly. But in the film I found it to be a bravura sequence of phenomenal special effects and mounting tension. Here is where seeing the film in IMAX really pays off. There’s a terrific shot in which Ethan steps out of the window onto the side of the building. Suddenly the camera follows him out, and we the viewers are right there vertiginously hanging off the building right along with him. As the sequence escalates and things start to go wrong, there were several moments when I was overcome with delight at the joyous “how’s he gonna get out of THIS” energy of the moment. It’s great fun. And that’s only half-way through the film! There’s also the terrific sandstorm chase, an elaborate fake-out and seduction in a banquet hall, and a race against time to stop a bad man from doing bad things with some nuclear launch codes.
But what makes Ghost Protocol great isn’t just the terrific action. It’s that Mr. Bird (and screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec) have embraced the idea that these movies can’t just be about super-agent Ethan Hunt. They need to be about his TEAM. And for the first time since those opening minutes of the first film, we’re treated to a fully-realized team, every single member of which is really fun and interesting and gets plenty of screen time in which to play. Simon Pegg returns as Benji, one of the stand-outs from the third film. He’s the tech-guy turned agent, and his gee-wiz good spirits are a terrific foil for Ethan’s deadly seriousness. As in the last film, Mr. Pegg gets most of the film’s best lines. The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner plays Brandt, an IMF analyst drawn into the action. If you’ve seen the trailers, then you know he hides a secret, but fortunately it’s much more interesting and complex a secret than the trailers suggest. I loved Mr. Renner’s performance. It’s a much softer performance than I would have expected, based on the previous tough-guy roles I’ve seen him play (in films like The Hurt Locker and The Town), and I really liked that interpretation of this character. Mr. Renner gives Brandt a lot of depth, and when the revelations come, he really sells the moment. The fourth member of the team is Paula Patton as Jane. I haven’t seen any of Ms. Patton’s previous film roles, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for her future films because she’s fantastic here, whether kicking ass (her fight scene with the female assassin in the Dubai penthouse is a knock-out) or playing the more dramatic moments such as mourning the loss of a fellow agent (a well-cast Lost alum). She also looks phenomenal in that blue dress at the end of the film.
The reason the film works so well is because of the way the focus on the team, and the action set-pieces, are fully integrated. The action in Ghost Protocol isn’t just big action for action’s sake. There are explosions, but this film isn’t just a shoot-em-up. The action sequences are all truly fun wheels-within-wheels espionage plots, and watching the layers of trickery unfold like an onion — and trying to stay one step ahead of the film and the characters — is a delight.
Really, the only complaint I have about the film is the stupidity of the plot point from which the film draws its title. Ethan and his team get framed for what looks like a terrorist attack on the heart of Moscow. As a result, Washington initiates Ghost Protocol and dissolves the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) completely. It would seem to me that a protocol in which your main intelligence agency — and all of it’s agents and materiel — melt away as if they were ghosts (Ghost Protocol, get it?) would be put in place when you’re afraid that the secrets of your spy agency are about to be exposed. But Ethan and his team were ALREADY exposed! That’s what set the story in motion! They were framed and publicly set-up. So what good does dissolving the IMF do at that point? Wouldn’t you rather your espionage agency focused all of its efforts on figuring out what really DID happen in Moscow, rather than shuttering the agency and just hoping that everything turns out OK? I realize that there always has to be some reason why Ethan and his team are on their own and cut off from support. (Sort of like how, always, in Star Trek, there’s some preposterous reason or another why the Enterprise is the only ship in the quadrant…) But this was pretty thin.
Still, just go with it. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a fantastically entertaining adventure all the way through. It’s also an object lesson as to how to pull off a late-in-the-series entry to a long-running franchise. Ghost Protocol stands totally on it’s own — you don’t have to have seen any of the previous films to 100% understand and invest in the story being told. However, it also takes pains to exist in the same universe as the previous films, and to acknowledge those events when appropriate. There are two great cameo appearances in the film’s closing moments (both of which brought a big grin to my face) that strike the perfect balance of referring to the previous installments without bogging the film down in boring exposition or re-capping.
The final scene holds the promise of future adventures for Ethan Hunt and this team, and I’d be delighted to see them.
Oh yeah! And did I mention that the IMAX presentation of Ghost Protocol was preceded by a sneak preview of the prologue of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming third and final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises? It was AWESOME. The sequence takes place far away from Gotham City. We don’t see Batman at all. Rather, we’re introduced to the mercenary Bane and see him reign down holy hell on a bunch of unfortunate CIA agents. (Fans of The Wire who ever wanted to see Tommy Carcetti get some more come-uppance are advised not to miss this!) The most intriguing aspect of the footage was Bane’s voice. It was a really surprising, interesting take on the voice of this face-masked villain. Bane was much more erudite than I expected. I pretty much loved it, although I will comment that I found his voice rather hard to make out at times. (A problem that I also had when watching the otherwise-hugely awesome new trailer for The Dark Knight Rises that was just released on-line.) I am chomping at the bit to see this film — summer is a long ways away! Here’s hoping Mr. Nolan sticks the landing of his saga. This first glimpse gives me enormous hope.