Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

The Mission Impossible film series has crossed the fifteen-year mark, and Tom Cruise is pushing fifty, but neither shows much strain in the new entry, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. I’m tempted to say that this movie is what the franchise should have been all along: light-hearted, preposterous, and, most importantly, easy to follow. Here, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is after a man who wants to start a nuclear war between America and Russia. Oh, that old thing again. But the goal is refreshingly clear: stop this guy before he blows up everything. There are no double crosses, no tormented plotting. There’s the bad guy — go get him. I appreciate that.

The movie didn’t thrill me, exactly, but it’s absorbing. Half the film devotes itself to the ludicrously convoluted schemes Ethan and his IMF team — including ass-kicking Paula Patton, returning Simon Pegg, and shadowy Jeremy Renner — hatch in order to gain access to highly secure places. My favorite, used early on in Moscow, is a screen that covers a hallway and projects what a security guard is supposed to be seeing, while Cruise and Pegg hide behind it and move it forward a few feet every minute or so. Not only that, some sort of tracking is used to move the image on the screen so that it looks natural to the security guard wherever he’s standing or sitting. It would have been easier, I suspect, simply to take the guard out with technology no more sophisticated than a blow dart. But it wouldn’t have been as cool.

Coolness, indeed, is the film’s main weapon. This is the live-action directing debut of Brad Bird, an animator best known for his work on The Simpsons and his acclaimed animated features The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. Bird approaches Ghost Protocol as a live-action cartoon, yet one with an appealing sense of physics. Ethan Hunt gets bashed around quite a bit, landing in the hospital not once but twice. When he’s prone and exhausted near the end, we believe it. Cruise is in fine shape, but he’s aging out of his pretty-boy looks — the nose is starting to look gnarled and bulbous, approaching Owen Wilson levels. And so when he gets chewed up, while his teammates mostly kick back on the sidelines (although Patton gets a nicely feral fight scene and Renner gets a high-stress mid-air scene that almost parodies Ethan’s dangling in the first film), he becomes more human and likable, somehow. Cruise isn’t quite so cocky here. Ethan throws himself into impossible situations because there’s no other way; he doesn’t just assume he’s going to master the situation.

The movie’s most sung and storied sequence by far places Ethan on the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. Cruise, we are assured, is really up there, though suspended by wires that were later digitally removed. The scene could easily have been faked, but Bird’s camera, moving around Cruise’s body and staring down the face of the monolith, catches images that simply wouldn’t occur to anyone to fake. It’s the centerpiece of the film but doesn’t take up too much time; it’s economical and governed by the story’s needs, like everything else in the movie. As for the rest of it, it’s a smoothly rhythmed piece of work, moving at a pace sufficient to bypass inconvenient questions. Ethan is on the side of the building so he can access the place’s server so that the team can fake a meeting and swap a fake nuclear code for a real one using special contact lenses and a fake hand, when in a more boring film they might’ve just killed the thugs and taken the code. It’s the theater of subterfuge.

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