Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: Film Review

"Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol"
David James/Paramount Pictures
Wall-to-wall action in a spectacular, if repetitive, fourth series entry.

Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt goes rogue to clear his organization's name in Brad Bird's first live-action film.

It may not be The Incredibles, but there is some fairly incredible stuff to be found in Mission: Impossible —Ghost Protocol, animation ace Brad Bird's first live-action film and a good continuation of the now-16-year-old series. The impact of spectacular action on striking international locales is moderated somewhat by the repetitive nature of the challenges faced by this rebooted team of American agents trying to thwart a villain who believes that a nuclear winter would be in the natural order of things. With Tom Cruise in top form here and IMAX presentation enhancing some of the key sequences, this Paramount release should add substantially to the grand total of a franchise that has hauled in $1.4 billion to date.

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At least two different constituencies will be curious about this fourth installment of a series which, if not taken to heart by the masses on the level of Bond, Harry Potter or even Indiana Jones, has reliably supplied enough lavish, high-voltage excitement to keep international audiences coming back for more about twice a decade. First will be the mainstream action and Cruise fans, who will get their money's worth from the eye-popping set pieces staged in Moscow, Dubai (with the star dangling from and traversing the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building) and Mumbai, for starters.

Then there are those who will be curious about how Bird, the force behind three superb, unusually smart animated features, Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, fares behind the camera of a big live-action feature. Given the demands of working within a strict and narrowly defined format that encourages imagination but allows for little deviation, he's done a fine job, perhaps nowhere better than in the first protracted set piece. Accomplished with very little dialogue and unexpected humor under the circumstances, it's an escape from a Russian prison by Cruise's Ethan Hunt (first seen throwing a ball against a wall, in likely homage to Steve McQueen in The Great Escape) orchestrated electronically from the outside by the one other holdover from the last film's team, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg).

Conceived entirely visually, the sequence boasts perfect timing, framing and movement, with some brutal action offset by the inspired musical overlay of Dean Martin singing "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" and the general perspective of not really understanding what's going on, as Ethan and a Russian cohort outmaneuver the authorities and other prisoners to make the break.

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Another tense but, for contrast, quiet scene quickly follows, in which disguised Ethan and Benji must do no less than penetrate the innermost sanctum of the Kremlin to retrieve the file on Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), who they know is getting very close to being able to trigger a nuclear holocaust that would oblige the world to start over again from scratch. The moment they get out, a huge explosion blows up an entire corner of the edifice. Ethan's boss (an unbilled Tom Wilkinson) shortly informs him that, as the incident will eventually be blamed on the United States, the president has declared “ghost protocol,” meaning that the IMF team, which also includes tough babe Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and will soon add agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), is being disowned and hung out to dry.

And that is exactly where Ethan finds himself at his next stop, clinging with suction gloves to the windows 123 floors up on the Burj Khalifa, which, approached from a desert road, is first seen rising like Oz on the horizon. For no doubt excellent reasons, this is the spot where the team hopes to nail Hendricks and, in the bargain, a crafty and sexy assassin (Lea Seydoux) whom Jane gets to fight hand-to-hand.

Ethan spends quite a bit of time making like Spider-Man on the side of the building and much has been made of how Cruise insisted upon doing this himself. It's riveting, with some shots shortening the breath and likely to induce vertigo in the susceptible. But a question arises: Since CGI has now become so convincing that it's often impossible to know if what's onscreen is real or artificial (as the Kremlin exterior during and after the explosion obviously is), how necessary was it for Cruise to actually get outside more than a thousand feet up? Are there, in fact, some computer-generated images mixed into this fine, thoroughly concocted sequence?

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By this time, and as the action moves along to India, the patterns in the script by veteran Alias writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec become all too familiar, as Ethan sets the objectives and does the lion's share of the heavy lifting, Jane and William do their things and Benji races his fingers over his keyboard and amongst ridiculously complicated wiring systems so as to break into the most impenetrable computer files within seconds. At a lavish Mumbai bash, Jane does get to go glam in order to distract a local gazillionaire (Anil Kapoor, from Slumdog Millionaire), but the main action here is Ethan battling Hendricks for a crucial metal briefcase in a high-rise car park, with elevators and automobiles going up and down, creating an ever-changing set of levels and opportunities.

Mild encroaching signs of physical maturity are becoming to Cruise (he'll turn 50 next year), who's obviously in great shape but doesn't strut and preen at all in this film. He's quite appealing, in fact, without asking to be admired or liked. While continuing to be able to do films like this, he might be on the verge of entering a new phase of his career by taking on some quite different sorts of roles.

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As for Renner's character, he starts as a suit-and-tie functionary. But it turns out he and Ethan have a history, one that comes home to roost at the end but doesn't open up as much personal exchange between the two or ultimate meaning as might have been. Renner's potential for danger, intensity and violence, so evident in The Hurt Locker and The Town, goes largely untapped, which is a shame in that there are momentary hints he and Cruise could have cooked with some material tailored to their strengths.

Pegg and Patton are fine as far as they go, but just a couple of personal shadings should not have been out of the question even in a film as straight-ahead and streamlined as this. Unquestionably, the film moves like crazy but could have used some variations of rhythm and some different moves in the second half, especially as the Mumbai material is not as impressive or enticing as what went on at points west.

Technically, the film is immaculate, with incredible photographic clarity, at least as presented in IMAX (full top-to-bottom images account for a reported 27 minutes of the running time). Michael Giacchino's active, imaginative, nearly ever-present score nicely incorporates Lalo Schifrin's original TV theme, as the previous films also did.

Venue: Dubai Film Festival
Opens: December 16 (IMAX), 21 (wide) (Paramount)
Production: Paramount, Skydance Pictures, Tom Cruise, Bad Robot
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Michel Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov, Josh Holloway, Anil Kapoor, Lea Seydoux
Director: Brad Bird
Screenwriters: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller
Producers: Tom Cruise, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk
Executive producers: Jeffrey chernov, David Ellison, Paul Schwake, Dana Goldberg
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: Jim Bissell
Costume designer: Michael Kaplan
Visual effects supervisor: John Knoll
Editor: Paul Hirsch
Music: Michael Giacchino
PG-13 rating, 133 minutes