Monday, December 19, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol Review

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Directed by Brad Bird
Released in 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol blasts through all the clog and tedium of the ailing action movie genre with enough dare and bombast to get the blood flowing once again.  This ride is so wild you may overlook the faults at the foundation. I would say I am willing to give it the benefit of my doubt.

Brad Bird’s live-action directorial debut (he was behind The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille) finds real thrills in real places, sometimes really high places like Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) scales seven stories of window panes, some 140 floors into the sky, with only these adhesive gloves that, of course, are reliably unreliable. Cinematographer Robert Elswit mortifies the acrophobes in the audience with a slow, peering shot over Hunt’s head as he gazes down to see the aphid cars and Monopoly houses captured with IMAX cameras. Bird admires the power of these cameras, noting how, when Hunt presses his hand against the pane, “you actually see the glass warp slightly because of the pressure of his hand.” You see it alright, and ask your gut too because you can feel it. 

Ethan Hunt and his team of deadly, attractive agents - played by qualifiers Paula Patton, Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner - are teasing physics in Dubai to find some launch codes that could result in nuclear war. It is the Cold War paranoia cow Hollywood has been milking since long before Dr. Strangelove. The “Ghost Protocol” in the title refers to the government’s official disavowal of IMF (the romantic “Impossible Missions Force”), leaving its agents in the dark and branded as terrorists if caught. 

Why all of this happened points back to the film’s early sequence where the team infiltrates the Kremlin to lift a dangerous scrap of intel. A gadget that would make Q proud - a screen that hides the agents by simulating a hallway’s length through detecting an onlooker’s visual focal length - is one piece of this suave heist, an operation that goes astray when the bad guy sets off a bomb simultaneously and pins the disaster on the Americans. Villain and motive established in one, loud bang. 

All of these action scenes - from Hunt’s prison escape at the tune of Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” to the final standoff in a shuffling parking garage - transcend their gimmicky concepts with Bird behind the camera. Recall The Incredibles and the fight in the lava pit between Mr. Incredible and the globular Omnidroid. It was swift, thrilling and even funny when you didn’t expect. Anticipate a similar style here, like when Agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway, forever enshrined as Lost’s “Sawyer”) cuts through a train station crowd to casually inject a target with tranquilizer, sit him down on a bench and push his hat over his eyes. Now this shady courier is no more than a bum. The film opens with Hanaway jumping from a roof, spinning around in mid-air and popping off just two bullets into his two pursuers leaning over the edge. He breaks his fall with a instantly-inflatable mattress, worn like a backpack.

Suspension of disbelief is obviously required. Tom Cruise, who does nearly all of his own stunts (or so says the press release), smacks his head into so many car roofs, window beams and other uncushioned surfaces that the story could morph into the ending of Million Dollar Baby. But the Energizer Bunny keeps going and going, running and falling and running once more. While James Bond may be a debonair gentleman with an edge, Ethan Hunt is a bullet train barreling towards some foreign notion of peace. There is little development in his character, or in any of them for that matter. Each “set piece,” as the critics love to call it, is so front-loaded with its own individual risks and objectives that the overall stakes are lost in the pulsing mass of it all. The madness reaches a point where these scenarios could be shuffled and the story’s sense, or lack thereof, would be about intact.

Tom Cruise and company pick up the pieces from Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec’s weak script to bring life to characters that clearly defy it. Benji, played by Simon Pegg, who filled a similar role of “geek-in-action” as Scotty in 2009’s Star Trek, laughs off Hunt’s orders in disbelief: “Ha! I thought you said the Kremlin.” Pegg provides comic relief in a genre that has lost it (Cowboys & Aliens and Battle: LA, Exhibits A and B). Cruise tackles this role with the full body commitment of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. There is a startling physicality to every movement, even as he swipes across files on a flashy touchscreen that lets the visual effects team show off for a moment. Ethan Hunt may not have the depth of humor or feeling of, say, Indy, but Cruise lights him up and makes it impossible to look away.

The action is so inspired, the pacing so slick and the thrills so visceral (your stomach drops as Hunt slips, your heart races as he sprints down the exterior of Burj Khalifa) that this film reaches an uncanny valley of greatness held back by its own story’s clichés and incoherence. I do not work in the movie business, but I find no sense in piling the finest directors, movie stars, editors and cinematographers onto a script that obviously needs improvement. I speak only out of affection, for I feel this movie could have been a modern action classic. What we have instead is only an IMAX spectacle of brilliant action and undying spirit framed as popcorn art by one of our country’s greatest living directors. Poor us.

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5

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