Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

January 11, 2012

For what could have been a Tom Cruise vanity project, the Mission: Impossible series has been remarkably solid.  The idea to have a different director for each entry has been reasonably fruitful, though the extremely distinct styles of its first two entries – reflecting the status of their directors, perhaps – has given way to a less conspicuous visual mode.  Brian DePalma’s first entry was kind of brilliant in its use of wide angles and clear lines, playing up the director’s fascination with paranoia and subterfuge.  John Woo’s insipid M:I-2 was about as horrendous a film as I can remember, but it wasn’t lacking in those trademark slow-motion gun balletics or, indeed, doves.  The third in the series, directed by then-first-timer J.J. Abrams, came some years after the previous and in a way was a rejuvenation in terms of style, even as it reigned in the auteurist flourishes.  It was slick, to be sure, but it’s fun came from the zippy writing and plot movement instead of any sort of extravagant visual distinctness.  Now we have Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which sees Abrams return as a producer and Brad Bird, of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant fame, make his live-action directorial debut.

Bird does very well with the string of set pieces that make up the film.  The plot is, as usual, irrelevant, though they don’t cast it off completely with a knowing nod as they did in the last one.  There’s a crazy Russian and nuclear codes etc etc, but it’s just an excuse for the team to infiltrate the Kremlin, pull-off a double-con in Dubai, and eventually race through the streets of Mumbai.  Each major scene is differentiated from the others through tone and action (this one is about intense infiltration, this one about a chase, and so on) so it never becomes a string of loud, monotonous bangs.  The action is both absurdly over-the-top (it relies on a string of outlandish gadgets) while also maintaining the kind of harsh physicality that the Bourne series has made standard in the genre.  The combination works, as there’s a deliriously fun and occasionally gutteral fight in an automated parking garage that is slapstick silly while managing to retain a degree of physical bruising.  Bird’s success can be seen in the contrast of several of the films infiltration scenes – all perfectly understanding where everyone is and what he or she has to do – and the justifiable ‘chaos’ sequence in the sandstorm, which uses its frantic camerawork to emphasize the central thrill of unknowing.  It is confident, clear-eyed filmmaking.

The biggest and perhaps most crucial difference between Ghost Protocol and its predecessors is the emphasis on Tom Cruise’s super-spy hero Ethan Hunt being a part of a team, an intrinsic part of the original television series that has largely been ignored in the films in favour of lone wolf heroics.  The team element is played up in every set piece, allowing Bird to open up the action sequences to allow for multiple elements of tension cross-cutting and depending on each other to progress.  It’s a simple thing, to be sure, and its underuse in the earlier films has always boggled my mind, but it works a charm here, especially during the much-vaunted Dubai sequence.  It helps that the three supporting players have enough charisma and personality to pull off the kind of dynamic necessary to make even the sloppier exposition scenes work.  Jeremy Renner brings a straight man comedic charm to his role as analyst Brandt, Paula Patton is able enough for the mostly physical role of fighting/looking beautiful (though she does do well with some of the minor, meatier character moments), and Simon Pegg manages to pull off a solid and often-funny comedic supporting character for what must be the first time in a Hollywood action blockbuster in ages.

So with the emphasis on the team aspect opening new excitements to exploit, this is perhaps paradoxically the most obvious “star vehicle” for Cruise in the series.  From his first scene in a Russian prison, where he strolls out of his cell and then acrobatically swings over the bar to the lower level, this film is all about Cruise’s body in motion.  So not a “star vehicle” in the sense of a showcase for acting talent or depth, but in the classical mode of The Star – a trend that I believe is close to dead – strutting around and thrilling audiences with his exploits.  Erroll Flynn swinging from a chandelier with a smile and a wink is replaced with Cruise swinging down a power line onto the back of truck with a charming shrug.  The Dubai sequence is beautifully shot and expertly staged, but its real power derives from the knowledge that Cruise is really up there, swinging from a rope 180 stories up on the side of the tallest building in the world.  It’s what separates it from the Bourne films, which proudly proclaimed that “Matt Damon IS Jason Bourne” whereas here it would be more fitting to emblazon a poster with “Ethan Hunt IS Tom Cruise”.

That notion of watching the actor and not a character is important.  This is a film about stunts and action, not story or overwhelming effects.  Bird’s (and Cruise’s) real accomplishment is the sense of being in real places and watching people do real things.  Sure there’s a big CGI sandstorm and an explosion, but for the most part it’s about people in physical spaces, globetrotting in physical cities, doing physical stunts.  It’s telling that the crux of much of the action is the malfunctioning and failing of technology; all those gadgets are cool but they can only get you so far.  It comes down to physical presence, and Ghost Protocol delivers the old-fashioned joy of being there.



2 Responses to “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”

  1. Greg Says:

    Cruise’s questionable religion aside, how often can one accuse him of starting in vanity projects?

    As you rightly point out, the M:I movies have gone from strength to strength. He played a great character in an underrated film in Tropic Thunder, in which he was certainly not the leading man.

    Granted, Knight and Day was pretty atrocious but that’s pretty much the only film that could be phrased as a vanity project. Especially when compared with other notable 80/90s stars like Stallone or Schwarzenegger.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      His occasional supporting work aside (and remember what a thing that cameo was in Austin Powers?), in his hey-day he was a larger-than-live kind of star who wanted his films to be Events. I’m not saying that he does have a thing for vanity projects, but when you decide to start producing and basically controlling a major action franchise like the M:I films, there’s a real danger of making sure everything is about You. He never really did that, choosing directors he thought could make a quality action romp instead, and mostly succeeding.

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