In Brad Bird’s live-action debut, which handles death-defying feats with the same dazzle he brings to animation, Cruise leaps past eroding sink holes, fights Russians in mechanized parking garages and scales the hair-raising geometry of the Burj Khalifa, all of it with nary a lock out of place. For a dude in his 50’s, that ain’t too shabby.
Nor is it shabby for a 15 year old film franchise based off a long-gone tv show to have a showing as strong as ‘Ghost Protocol.’ This isn’t just the best of the Mission Impossible films, it’s one of the year’s most enjoyable action spectacles. You aren’t likely to find set pieces this fluid and visually breathtaking –not to mention engrossing—outside of animated pics like Rango or Tintin. A car and foot chase through the sandstorm drenched streets of Dubai matches even the crazed vehicular mayhem of Justin Lin’s gloriously high octane Fast Five. With Bird in charge behind the camera, and Cruise manning a pleasing team of personalities in front of it, this Mission Impossible realizes the franchises potential for spy-vs-spy escapism in a way that puts most of the recent James Bond entries to shame. Ethan Hunt returns from the shadows—well actually, he’s busted out of a Russian prison in an escape that fills the IMAX frame with brawling inmates and bursting firebombs— to lead the last remaining IMF team against a maniac intent on ushering in nuclear holocaust.
This baddie, Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), plans to use a media satellite and Russian nuclear codes to usher in the end of social order via a triggered global war, which he believes is necessary to reboot the human race and establish peace. In a deliciously convoluted bid to stop him, Hunt, his mercurial hacker bud Benji (Simon Pegg), tenacious female agent Jane (Paula Patton), and the more-capable-than-he-seems IMF ‘analyst’ Brandt (Jeremy Renner), travel the world and employ insane stunts and clever, imaginative gadgets to retrieve the codes and shut-down the satellite.
All of this is so much more fun than it might have been due to Brad Bird’s nimble touch and energetic verve. Bird, who brought great heart and childlike wonder to films like The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, comes to the series with fresh eyes and a better grasp on comic-book derring-do and heroic camaraderie. There’s an easily grasped connection between Hunt’s attempts to form his team into a make-shift family here and the efforts of Mr. Incredible to bring his family together into a make-shift team in that earlier Pixar effort.
An improvement over the previous pictures is the balance the film strikes between the careening action sequences, the interaction of the IMF team, and the clunky narrative barely holding it all together. That much-touted moment where Hunt must climb the side of the Burj Khalifa with nothing but some hi-tech gloves with malfunctioning grip is indeed thrilling, and the way it’s shot and edited, it becomes a masterpiece of anxiety and exhilarated determination.
When Cruise looks over his shoulder to hear the wind whipping on the soundtrack, he sees a fearsome sandstorm hovering at the borders of Dubai. Now consider that the whole reason he’s out there is to improvise and solve an issue not covered in the plan. So, when the scene ends, it’s back to the machinations of the plot, but we remember the sandstorm, and it is reliably brought back to play in a later intimidating chase sequence. While this is going on, we follow Benji, Jane and Brandt as they struggle to do their part and worry about Ethan, out there on the window. This skill-full juggling act keeps the whole enterprise clipping along even when it threatens to just blow away, right off the screen and into that whirling dust.
Bird does the same thing for the film’s climax which follows three different threads involving Jane’s seduction of an Indian media mogul, Renner’s adventures in a magnet suit, and Cruise throwing down with a bad guy in one of those snazzy automated parking garages. There are a lot of moving pieces to this thing, but it miraculously comes together in the end, even if it’s more relieving than triumphant.
The cast goes a long way in aiding Bird’s overall vision. He sets up a globe-trotting game of MouseTrap, filled to the brim with all kinds of big-kid wish fulfillment, and then hands it over to his actors to create the emotional investment. Cruise is in fine hero form, and although he’s clearly conscious of the need to preserve his fit, capable action status, he’s also got the rhythms and habits of Ethan Hunt down to a science. Simon Pegg, looking like a mischievous elf, adds more than just levity as the quipping Benji; he’s the sweet voice of concern and worry nagging through the team. He’ll put you in mortal jeopardy with some hair-brained scheme, but he’ll also sincerely wince the whole time he watches you do it.
Paula Patton makes the most of her female butt-kicker by manifesting that toughness and sexy get-it-done attitude in every scene, not just the big moments the script throws her. Renner is great as Brandt, who has an undisclosed connection with Hunt, and must also grapple with the off-narrative concern that he’s seemingly being groomed as an eventual replacement for Cruise as headliner. Renner’s facial expressions and body language when faced with the daffiness of the IMF team exploits are more than priceless, they are essential to the atmosphere. Niqvist and Wilkinson exist at the edges of the movie, but they do quiet and good work that isn’t flashy but bolsters the adjacent action. Niqvist’s Hendricks could use more definition, but he’s really only the herald of destruction–the mouthpiece for the bomb if you will–and he does the job required of him. Here’s hoping Hollywood learns to do more with he and Dragon co-star Noomi Rapace than use them as gaudy adornments in slick popcorn movies.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a incredibly complex film on the technical level, but Bird and his team make it feel like a lark, a breezy kind of throw-away entertainment that will fade into the shadows shortly after it ends. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, and credit to Cruise and the other actors who follow Bird’s lead and indulge our urge for big thrills delivered with a smile and a chuckle. In a season of dour, melancholy art pictures, this Impossible is a mission gladly accepted.