"...easily the best in the series and a genuine spectacle..."

Fourth Time's the Charm

(123011) Even though the "Mission: Impossible" film franchise has maintained a reasonably high standard of quality over the course of its first three installments--the 1996 original from Brian DePalma was a decent action extravaganza and the follow-ups directed by John Woo in 2000 and J.J. Abrams in 2006's "Mission Impossible 3" were perfectly serviceable continuations--I am not exactly sure that there has been any pent-up demand among the viewing public for a fourth one. After all, it has been six years since the previous installment and that one was deemed to be a bit of a commercial disappointment, mostly due to a growing audience apathy towards star/producer Tom Cruise following his couch-jumping antics during the publicity tour for "War of the Worlds" the previous summer. As for Cruise, he hasn't really had anything approaching a hit since then and the most attention that he has received in that time for his on-screen work was for his heavily disguised cameo appearance as the sleazy studio head in "Tropic Thunder." As a result, it is quite likely that many people will look at "Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol," the latest entry in the series, as nothing more than a desperate attempt by Cruise to reestablish his commercial standing by going back to a well that has served him well over the years. While many viewers may go into the film with little more than diminished expectations, they will be leaving it with quickened pulses and goofy grins on their faces because, in one of the happier cinematic surprises of the season, "Ghost Protocol" is pretty much a blast from start to finish--easily the best in the series and a genuine spectacle with set-pieces that will knock even the most jaded viewers for a loop or two.

In true action film tradition, "Ghost Protocol" starts off with a bang with IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) languishing in a Moscow prison for unknown reasons until he is busted out by fellow agents Jane (Paula Patton) and Benji (Simon Pegg, reprising his role from the previous film) with the help of some computer trickery, a full-scale riot and the swinging sounds of Dean Martin. Immediately after escaping, he and the others are charged with breaking into no less of an establishment than the Kremlin in order to help bring down Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a Russian extremist who apparently hell-bent on acquiring and launching a nuclear missile that will goad the superpowers into destroying each other or something like that. Unfortunately for Hunt, Hendricks is on to him and not only escapes the team's clutches, he blows up a chunk of the Kremlin and leaves Hunt to be blamed for the attack. Hunt manages to escape the clutches of the Russian police but soon learns that as a result of the bombing and the subsequent bad publicity, the entire IMF has been disbanded and all of its agents have been disavowed.

Naturally, a little thing like this is not going to stop Hunt from trying to stop Hendricks and save the day and, using what little equipment he is able the scrounge from a safe room, goes off in pursuit of the mad Russian with a rag-tag team consisting of Jane, Benji and William (Jeremy Renner), a seemingly mild analyst who may or may not be entirely what he seems. The chase takes them first to Dubai, where the team must subvert Hendricks' men from acquiring the necessary launch codes from a sexy French assassin (Lea Seydoux) via impersonations, technological trickery and Hunt dangling off the side of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, with the help of nothing more than a pair of hi-tech adhesive gloves of dubious functionality (there is also a massive sandstorm on the way for good measure, an element that adds an additional level of tension to the inevitable chase sequence). Afterwards, it is off to Mumbai where Hendricks is planning to launch the missile and the gang ties to stop him once and for all in an extended sequence that finds Benji guiding William through the bowels of a building like a remote-controlled airplane, Jane seducing the sleazy Indian median baron (Anil Kapoor) who owns the satellite that Hendricks is hoping to hijack and Hunt going head to head against Hendricks in a multi-level parking structure with plenty of lifts going up and down to exploit and plenty of expensive cars to drop when needed.

Although the "Mission: Impossible" films are generally considered to be a star-driven franchise, they have been notable for attracting a better class of director than might normally be associated with such tent pole silliness. With DePalma, the concept allowed him to further explore his career-long obsessions with voyeurism and elaborately choreographed set-pieces on a massive scale and the result was a blockbuster that still felt like a DePalma film through and through. In the follow-ups, John Woo and J.J. Abrams were allowed to similarly indulge in their own peculiar stylistic notions--Woo's flair for the operatic and Abrams' further exploration of the concept of a spy trying to balance their professional and personal lives, a conceit he first delved into with his TV series "Alias"--and the results were more distinctive than they had any right to be as a result. This time around, the directorial reins have been handed over to Brad Bird, making his live-action feature debut after directing the acclaimed animated films "The Iron Giant," "The Incredibles" and "
Ratatouille," and while it might seem at first blush to be an odd idea to put a project of this size in the hands of someone who has never made a non-animated film before, he proves to be an incredibly inspired choice.

One of the things that made his previous efforts so special was the way that he took characters that might seem to be difficult for most people to relate to on the surface--a giant robot, a dysfunctional family of superheroes and a rat with delusions of gourmet grandeur--and invested them with enough genuinely human characteristics so that viewers could eventually embrace them. In the previous entries in the series, Ethan Hunt has basically been portrayed as a sort of one-man show who can pretty much do it all despite overwhelming odds and who always makes himself front and center over what were theoretically supposed to be team efforts--one of the key bones that fans of the original Sixties-era TV show had with the big-screen version. This time around, Hunt has been knocked down a peg or two, especially after the explanation of the mysterious absence of what would seem to be an especially important character, and while there is still no doubt that he will indeed save the day in the ta-daa! nick of time, he nevertheless comes across as a little more vulnerable and human and becomes all the more appealing in the process.

And like "The Incredibles," in which the superhero family was only able to save humanity when they finally began to work together as equals, "Ghost Protocol" is the first of the films in which the heroics come across like a genuine team effort as opposed to the other players merely getting a couple of scraps to keep them happy. Simon Pegg is the comic relief, of course, but he also gets a few instances of unexpected derring-do as well. Likewise, Paula Patton gets to do more than merely serve as the group's object of lust (not that she doesn't do that well) and her mid-film brawl with Lea Seydoux is a definite highlight. As for Jeremy Renner, his character may start off a little slow but his character grows in stature as the film goes along and by the end, he has made such an impression that if Cruise ever decided to leave the franchise, he could step in and it could go on with nary a hiccup. The four play nicely off of each other and that turns out to be quite important since the bad guys, with the exception of the striking but too-brief appearance by Seydoux, simply aren't that memorable--the kind of generic super-villains that one might ordinarily see in one of the Roger Moore James Bond movies.

Of course, the other reason that Bird was presumably hired was due to the flair for stunning and kinetic action sequences that he demonstrated throughout "The Incredibles." Anyone worried that his gifts might not transfer from animation to live-action can breathe easy because "Ghost Protocol" contains some of the very best action scenes to hit movie screens this year and what is especially refreshing about them is that, with the exception of the knockout explosion at the Kremlin early on, the scenes rely less on over-the-top pyrotechnics and an obvious over-reliance on CGI trickery and more on pure filmmaking skill and a genuine sense of jaw-dropping spectacle that has become all too rare at a time when virtually any imaginable sight can be conjured up with a battery of computers. Scenes like the opening prison break and the concluding fight in the parking garage are highly impressive in the way that they present seemingly chaotic action in a clean and efficient manner that never loses its grip on the spatial geography of what is going on at any given time. Even more impressive is the entire Dubai sequence starting from Cruise apparently doing things outside the building that presumably give the studio insurance weasels conniption fits, extending to the multi-story brawl between two sets of bad guys and concluding with the hair-raising chase through the sandstorm.

This is the best “Mission: Impossible” yet, as it embraces both the techno-wonder and the stripped-down coolness of seeing a group of tacticians infiltrate with such precision. I don’t think it’s too often that a director can claim to have topped De Palma, but I think Bird did it here. “Ghost Protocol” is a sleek, sexy action film that will leave you hoping that the series won’t take a five year break this time.

Directed by:    Brad Bird
Written by:    Screenplay by André Nemec, Josh Appelbaum &
 Christopher McQuarrie. Based on the TV series
 created by Bruce Geller
Starring:    Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg
Released:    121611 (I-Max Screens), 122111 (Wide Release)
Length:    132 minutes
Rating:    PG-13 for sequences of intense action and

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