Acrophobes Beware

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (December 18, 2011 – IMAX Release)     3.5/5

Directed by Brad Bird (Paramount Pictures)

After witnessing “the impossible” three times, now over a span of 15 years, it would appear time for a breath of fresh air to hit the Tom Cruise-driven action franchise. Based on the television series, the original 1996 thriller was so utterly Brian De Palma, using canted angles, Hitchcockian suspense, and a complex narrative to drive home an iconic blockbuster. Although some critics disagree about De Palma’s film, there was pretty much a consensus that John Woo’s 2000 sequel was quite weaker, utilizing a clumsy script in conjunction with the spectacular action sequences the director is known for. Leave J.J. Abrams to reinvigorate the franchise with M:i-3 in 2006, in a darker, action-heavy sequel with narrative twists and Tom Cruise tears galore. This time, Pixar director Brad Bird makes his live-action debut with Ghost Protocol (still produced by Abrams), a decidedly lighthearted take on the series, packed with some of the most elaborate, jaw-dropping action sequences in recent memory. If there is one reason for an IMAX screen to exist, it has been proven through these two hours and ten minutes.

The film opens as superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is rescued from a Russian prison by a few Impossible Mission Force (IMF) field agents, including Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, reprising his role from the third film) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton).  He is soon roped into a mission involving the theft of nuclear activation codes by Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a typical villain who wants to start the next world war. Events soon lead to the “disavowment” of the IMF, leaving the agents completely on their own. Let’s be clear – this is a film to be seen in IMAX. Using those special cameras for select scenes, Bird captures the destruction of the Kremlin, as well as a scene where Hunt must climb the tallest building in the world – the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. This is one of the most astonishing sequences I have seen in an action film, suspenseful not only for how immersive and real that imagery manages to appear onscreen, but also how it provides the illusion that you are Tom Cruise, with one major difference. As audience members, we don’t have infinite courage – and every second our hero remains in the air, we have the intense fear of him falling off into the grimy air, like a fly from a wall. Thrilling cannot even describe it.

As for the other aspects of Ghost Protocol, it is almost so well-made that you forget what it lacks. Bird, although not accustomed to using actual cameras to convey his intentions, displays the aesthetics of film that only an animated director could know. He has a natural knack for perception of depth and space, as well as reflectivity and visual flair. The movie moves at quite a clip, accomplished through succinct editing by frequent De Palma collaborator Paul Hirsch. Maybe that is how Ghost Protocol, despite its distinctively modern vibe, captures some that original, suave style. Cinematography by veteran Robert Elswit, who recently framed action films Salt and The Town, also helps considerably.

What doesn’t are the components of Ghost Protocol that never cease to tease us. M:i-3 was surprisingly emotional, and Bird’s film takes a clear stance not to replicate that human intensity, and instead establishes its thrills through the awe-inspiring moments we witness onscreen. I respect this decision, considering Bird’s attempt to reinvent a franchise that may soon run very dry. What remains is simply an adventure story. This is not a bad thing, but it does take away some of fundamentals that define what Mission: Impossible is. The suspense is certainly there, but Ghost Protocol lacks the narrative twists (especially in its climax), that could have made the movie outstanding. The plot is pretty ho-hum, not offering a particularly complex, relevant, or original story. However, considering how fast Ghost Protocol moves (even considering its lengthy runtime), it is executed quite well, so much so that upon a first viewing, it might even seem confusing. Luckily there is enough to Ghost Protocol that it is worth seeing multiple times, even on a small screen.

I very much appreciated that backstories were developed for the IMF team members, something that the previous films have lacked. And although they may seem underwritten, simply the fact that they are there adds a level of prestige to the narrative. Jeremy Renner, who plays an IMF analyst who soon joins the team, is a groovy presence to have, despite the fact that I found his performance rather lazy. Even more dull is Paula Patton, who simply seems miscast. I also wish Nyqvist’s character provided a more compelling villain, but how can he when there is so little interaction with Cruise, besides hand-to-hand combat? Tom, meanwhile, is as confident as ever, whether he’s reciting the dialogue by Alias writers Andre Nemec and Josh Applebaum or doing his own stunts. Simon Pegg is also a comedic wonder, although I sometimes believe his persona is best used in small doses. There is an ongoing joke where Pegg claims that he would really like to snag one of the life-like masks that so often provide shocking moments in the Mission: Impossible movies. I kept on waiting for Pegg to pull off one of those masks, thus providing a supercool plot twist. That moment, however cliche it would seem, would have truly satisfied me. Not to spoil anything, but masks provide little significance to the plot of Ghost Protocol. Slightly disappointing, yes, but as mentioned earlier – this is not your older brother’s Mission: Impossible. It is a slight reinvention, and for what it does offer, Ghost Protocol is beyond entertaining.

A main theme of the film is the thrill of accomplishment, especially when the odds are against you. There are absolutely no moments inside the IMF agency in the film, and for good reason. This is Bird’s attempt to craft an action-adventure outside the parameters of what we’ve come to expect from Mission: Impossible, and for that, he has experienced the thrill himself. But more importantly, he has accomplished the impossible for the fourth time. Because for better or worse, Ghost Protocol is Mission: Impossible without the mask. Hanging in the air by a thread, but still with the confidence to follow through. Thus said, it is a film driven by moments. Luckily, these are arguably the year’s most adrenaline-pumping.


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