In many ways a film from the Mission Impossible franchise was the perfect transition from animation to live action for director Brad Bird (Ratatouille, The Iron Giant). The films that surround super spy Ethan Hunt and his arsenal of über high tech gadgets exist in their own hyper-stylized world where the laws of physics only exist when it serves the plot. “Cartoonish” is not an inappropriate adjective to describe the capers that Hunt and his team embark upon where identities are swapped in a string of serio-comic hijinks. It is an ideal type of film for a filmmaker who is used to creating a world with his own rules.
Bird came to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol armed with a generous budget, a collection of IMAX cameras, and the recognizable star of the franchise Tom Cruise. On a visual level, this is a fantastic venture into live-action for Bird as he succeeds with some brilliantly exciting sequences. On a narrative level, however, the film is completely empty and it challenges the audience to dismiss its lack of a story and simply embrace the escapist action. We find ourselves asking the question: “where is Tom Cruise? And why is he chasing this guy?” The film reassures us: “Don’t worry about the details. Just know: he NEEDS to chase this guy.”
Summarizing the plot is unnecessary, but obligatory so I will give it my best shot. The film opens with an escape from a Russian prison where Ethan Hunt is being held for a murder charge. Aided by fellow IMF agents Benji (Simon Pegg) and Jane (Paula Patton), Ethan escapes and is instantly set upon an unauthorized mission to prevent an insane scientist named Hendricks (Michael Nykvist) from launching the world into nuclear war. After the death of the U.S. Secretary of State (Tom Wilkinson) an analyst and former agent named Brandt (Jeremy Renner) joins the team and acts as the voice of calculation and reason opposite the spontaneous Ethan. Their international mission takes them to exotic locations including the Kremlin in Moscow, the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, and an exotic palace in India.
The opening scene features the song “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” from Dean Martin while the prison breakout occurs. Whether deliberate or not, the song is perfect foreshadowing for what is about to bestow Ethan Hunt throughout the film’s runtime. The purpose behind many of the action scenes seems to be to gauge how many blows to the head Tom Cruise can sustain and still be believably pretty. The following items strike Cruise directly in the face at some point during the movie: a car, a fist, a large board, the world’s tallest building, and a film canister. Seeing the film in IMAX meant that by the end it felt like I had also been punched in the face.
The obscene amount of portrayed physical injury with effects never lasting longer than one scene is one of the ways that Bird sticks to the formula of the Mission Impossible franchise. He also maintains the Rube Goldberg style of problem solving that the IMF team has always used to save the world. An early scene in the Kremlin shows Hunt and Benji using a piece of technology to distract a guard that is so unnecessarily complex that its mere presence will inspire laughter.
There are also some clever ways that Bird reinvents the series for the better. In the previous films, we never knew if a character was who we thought because of absurdly realistic masks that could apparently mimic one’s posture, inflection, and walking style. Bird and screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec ditch this convention early by creating a malfunction in the machine used to create the masks. This smart decision prevents this tactic from ever being used an ensures that the audience can rest assured and trust their eyes.
Thanks to the previous films, we have a good grasp on the emotional life of Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and both Pegg and Patton’s characters fit so nicely into action movie archetypes that we don’t need to know anything about them. However, the particular villain in this film is new to the series and the film tells us nothing about his motivations or his psychology. In one brief glimpse of a television screen we hear him say that nuclear winter is how to bring the Earth back to balance. However, he is never given a chance to explain himself and instead doomed to be ambiguously foreign and therefore evil.
Cruise manages to be the most exciting member of the cast proving that even though he is one year shy of 50, he is still action star material. He will likely be on board for another sequel, as will the studio after the film makes good money over the Holiday weekend. However, when you have an exciting director like Brad Bird doing his best, but adding little to the franchise one has to wonder where it can go from here.
Bottom Line: If you are looking for thrilling, escapist action over the Holidays, there are better places to look than the thoughtless Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.