It's pretty rare that a film franchise improves in its fourth installment and even rarer that a franchise is even worth watching at all, beyond its initial trifecta. Mission: Impossible, now on its fourth entry, didn't look to be one of those franchises.
It started out strong back in 1996 -- Jesus, that's forever ago -- under the hand of legendary director Brian De Palma, whose cinematic highs dwell in a space between Alfred Hitchcock and Ken Russell. Arty schlock wrapped in a purist's visual syntax. Let loose on Mission: Impossible, an odd pairing considering the film's very uncinematic, television roots, De Palma turned the property into something cinematic, atmospheric and even iconic. Who doesn't remember the scene of Tom Cruise barely avoiding disaster -- a sequence given a knowing hat tip in Ghost Protocol -- as he hangs suspended over the pressure-sensitive floor of that ultra-secure, temperature controlled, laser guarded nearly Kurbrickian computer room?
Pacing issues aside, De Palma had the best entry -- surprise, the first -- particularly after the John Woo-helmed sequel Mission: Impossible II. Aside from not trying on the title at all, Woo's style, once revered when he was unleashing bullet ballet devastation with his great early Hong Kong films The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head, had reached the point of parody after he became "Americanized". M:I2 with it's over the top action, ridiculous lack of narrative subtlety and hilarious explosions of doves in the background of the action set pieces was a step in the wrong direction.
But vanity projects -- which this surely is for Cruise -- must go on. So despite the reek of M:I2 the series moved on to greener directorial pastures with Lost wunderkind J.J. Abrams behind the camera for the passable, and again aptly named Mission: Impossible III. An improvement in the grand scheme -- the film seemed less concerned with style and more with straight up storytelling -- Abrams made an entertaining entry though he, ironically, couldn't quite shake the television vibe he'd acquired with his years on Alias (he got better at that with Star Trek). The film's coolest move? Adding Simon Pegg to the cast as Benji Dunn, Ethan Hunt's wisecracking uber-geek tech guy.
And if it ended there it would have been on an up note. Abram's feature directorial efforts were a bit bland, but still an improvement over Woo's self-serious cinematic posturing. But the fact is we didn't really need another Mission: Impossible film.
Until we did.
Proving again that film is a director's medium, above all, the Mission: Impossible franchise finds itself re-invigorated under the sure hand of director Brad Bird with the unlikely sounding Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol (at least they tried this time). Best known for helming the great animated films The Iron Giant, The Incredibles (of which there are shades of gadgetry in M:I4) and Ratatouille, here Bird makes his first foray into live-action and sequels and it turns out he's as great in the real world as much as the that of paint and pixels.
The action (and Lost shout outs -- Abrams returns here as producer) wastes no time as we open on the pursuit of an IMF agent named Trevor Hanaway (Josh Holloway) as he's chased through the narrow streets of Istanbul and eventually killed for the nuclear codes in his possession by a French hit-girl, Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux). His team leader, Jane Carter (Paula Patton) must get the codes back, not to mention payback for her lost agent.
The nuclear codes are being sought after by Russian nuclear scientist, Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist--best known as Blomkvist of the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) who thinks nuclear holocaust is a good idea for humanity. He's a little less than optimistic. It's one thing to want to nuke someone you hate. This guy actually thinks it would help the entire race, which makes him a fairly decent antagonist -- and a nice turn against type for the likeable, former investigative journalist.
Anyway, IMF needs to stop him so they launch a rescue mission to spring former agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) from a Russian prison where he's been held for the unsanctioned assassinations of some Serbians that killed his wife. Reuniting with Benji and Carter, Hunt and his team are forced to infiltrate the Kremlin to get to Hendricks but are thwarted by Hendricks' plan after he blows up the Kremlin. The bombing is blamed on Hunt and his crew and the President initiates 'Ghost Protocol', disavowing the existence of Hunt's team and shuttering the entire IMF. If they're going to stop Hendricks they'll have to do it alone, pursued by assassins, Russian cops and with no help from the government.
And it works pretty beautifully. From the Bondian opening sequence and credits to the sheer grandeur of the stunt work and set pieces, director Brad Bird brings a sense of scope to the visuals that's been missing since the first film, 15 years ago. The tightly paced story -- at way over two hours, Ghost Protocol feels pretty breezy -- from Abrams alumni Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec (Alias) hops the globe and tightens the screws of its layered -- but never convoluted -- plotting at every turn while Bird brings it all to bare visually with a great eye.
That sense of visual scope includes everything from Kremlin bombings to futuristic gadgetry but the penultimate sequence, that finds the team in Dubai working to thwart the exchange of the codes, has Cruise rappelling off the side of Burj Tower -- the tallest building on Earth -- and the difference between green screen FX work and the real thing is clear (yes, Cruise performed his own stunts for this one and dangling him off the Burj Tower took some balls), particularly when enjoyed in Imax. Mission: Impossible is a really big action movie and the Imax format is a perfect fit for the grand scope Bird captures here.
The tight, if derivatively nostalgic story (Russians have been making a comeback lately) places an emphasis on teamwork so while Cruise is the star of the show -- clearly -- it doesn't have the same vanity project feel so often associated with M:I2 or some of his other choices (The Last Samurai, anyone?). Sure, he defies most forms of physics and takes a superhuman amount of physical abuse but Bird makes it believable with his unique ability to mix suspension of disbelief with strong narratives and clear plotting.
That's an acuity he brings to the action sequences as well. Sequences that never lose their way visually -- my feeling is his animation background firmly grounds his sense of spatial coherence -- and are well and frequently placed, upping the ante while never overwhelming the story.
It's pretty much the best American action movie this year (Tintin is great but gets cut because there are no actual humans in danger) and while the performances are what you'd expect -- Cruise is serious and runs a lot; Patton barely registers; Pegg is funny and out of place -- the addition of Jeremy Renner as William Brandt, as an IMF analyst who is more than he seems adds a bit of unlooked for quality to the acting department. Renner is typically great in his understatedly natural way, while coming through on the asskickery when called upon.
Surprising though it sounds, M:I4 -- Ghost Protocol is a mission you should choose to accept.
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