Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (review)
Mission Finally Accomplished
I’m not sure I could tell you much of anything about the previous Mission: Impossible movies except that they all feature, at some point, Tom Cruise running very fast and getting very angry, often at the same time. That’s about all I remember. I just now reread my review of M:I3, and it seems I enjoyed it well enough; apparently I did not enjoy M:I2 at all. I have seen the first one, but it predates — just — my work as a critic and I’ve never reviewed it, so I cannot refresh my memory as to my reaction at the time.
Wow: Tom Cruise has been Ethan Hunt just a little bit longer than I’ve been a film critic. I guess he and I are both gettin’ old…
I suspect that I will not soon similarly forget M:I4, aka Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (though I’m not sure I can forgive it its punctuationally difficult title). I don’t think I’ve seen a more fun straight-up action movie in ages. No mutant superheroes or genetically engineered apes here; no taking cats or boy wizards. Removed from the realms of fantasy — the whiffs of science fiction in the IMF team’s high-tech spy toys remain just whiffs — and riffing on Cold War themes like it’s still 1965, Ghost Protocol stays firmly grounded in the real world: there is, amazingly, hardly even any CGI. Yet while it touches on modern concerns about terrorism and rogue nuclear weapons, there’s nothing too heavy here, either: no subtexts about any Pressing Issues, no handwringing over Important Matters (though there is one sly joke about the gay rumors that dog two of the film’s stars). We’re just along for the ride of a lifetime on the mission to end them all, perhaps literally. (The “Ghost Protocol” is when the President disavows the entire IMF — if this now-rogue mission does not succeed, the IMF is kaput and its good name and those of its agents will be besmirched forever.)
What makes M:I4 so special and almost unique in the annals of kick-ass action is how up-close and personal it is. Director Brad Bird, making an astonishingly confident and distinctive leap from animation (Ratatouille, The Incredibles) to live action, keeps our attention on the small scale, on the human scale. When the Kremlin blows up — a criminal action to cover a terrorist theft, with the blame on the IMF — just as Ethan Hunt (Cruise: Knight and Day, Valkyrie) is skipping out after an espionage infiltration, Bird keeps the focus on Hunt, caught in the ripple of explosions and clouds of dust and smoke. We don’t get what would be another, more exploitive movie’s money shot of the landmark building collapsing; instead, we just about glimpse it later, on a TV news report. When Hunt is caught up in a gunfire attack in a moving vehicle that causes it to flip over and land in a river, we stay in the car with Hunt, experiencing the dizzying terror right alongside him. Bird shows us all his action setpieces not from the outside, saying “Isn’t this an awesome thing to see?!” but from the inside, saying, “Isn’t this an awful thing to be caught up in?”
When Hunt is forced to freeclimb up the outside of the tallest building the world — the Burj Khalifa in Dubai — with only the help of one of those science-fictional gadgets, which doesn’t work as well as it should, I was laughing with delight as well as gasping in shared panic, it’s that breathtakingly intimate while at the same time putting you right in the middle of big, heady action, innovative stuff we haven’t seen before. Of course, I’d been laughing and gasping long before this bit, which comes around the midpoint of the two-hours-plus movie (the 132 minutes zip by). The clever combination of every element — script, action choreography, direction, performances — working beautifully in tandem is a joy from the start. The flick’s opening moments clue us in to what to expect: we fly over Budapest — the spectacular IMAX photography adds to the giddy intensity throughout — and join an IMF action already in progress — starring Lost’s Josh Holloway! Josh Holloway for James Bond! — and watch it go wrong. And we care about the people it goes wrong for, including Holloway’s Hanaway and Paula Patton’s (Just Wright, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) Jane Carter, because we’ve been feeling their life-and-death from the moment we meet them.
M:I4 cleverly hooks us on all levels: the visual, the emotional, the thrilling. These aren’t superheroes doing impossible things, they’re real people doing a good, hard job. Hunt looks ragged, beat-up, and exhausted much of the time, as a man in his situation should, and rarely escapes any mishap unscathed — not since Indiana Jones, I think, has any action hero gotten so believably banged and bruised and battered. Simon Pegg’s (The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Paul) computer nerd is out in the field now, his geeky excitement and enthusiasm making him very much our stand-in. Jeremy Renner’s (Thor, The Town) analyst unexpectedly dumped into field action rings with disbelief at his predicament: “This is really happening, isn’t it?” he asks, rhetorically, in shock, when things go very much south.
Have I mentioned it’s all funny, too? Not off-the-cuff one-liner funny but the sort of bone-deep funniness that comes from exasperation with bureaucratic procedure and computers telling us what do to, from forced improvisations that come from multiple encounters with Murphy’s Law. Have I mentioned it’s all hugely suspenseful, from leaving us wondering for a looong while just why the heck Hunt was in a Russian prison he had to be busted out of as the movie opens, and right up to the endgame in which there is clearly no way in hell the good guys are gonna avert the Bad Thing that’s about to happen? Did I mention it’s all globehopping, from Budapest to Moscow to Dubai to Mumbai to Seattle to “I’ll see you in Kandahar”?
This is what a Mission: Impossible movie should be. It may have taken them this many movies to get it right, but they finally got it so, so right.