Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

Rating: B

Dir: Brad Bird
Star: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton

Despite a decline in box-office for part three, a global take of almost $400 million made it an easy decision to greenlight a fourth installment. While J.J. Abrams was unable to direct, he remained on board as a producer. Bird was an interesting choice to direct, having only previously helmed animated features, including The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. [I imagine if this had been made after John Carter, the studio might have gone another direction] He was a classmate of Tim Burton on CalArts’s animation course, and their classroom number, A113, crops up in a couple of places here, e.g. on Ethan Hunt’s ring, as an Easter Egg of sorts.

Part III opened with the disconcerting sight of Hunt’s girlfriend apparently being killed, and it’s not long into this before we discover the couple apparently split up, due to the stresses of his work. As in III, the key word is “apparently”. The truth may (or may not) be far worse, and connected to why Hunt starts the film locked up in a Russian prison. Guess nobody wants Hunt to be happy. Sprung from there, it’s not long before all of IMF is disavowed – the “ghost protocol of the title” – yet he’s still on the trail of the components necessary to launch Russian nuclear missiles. Turns out you need codes, a launch device and a rogue satellite, leading to a globe-hopping scavenger hunt. At what point would I, as an insane wannabe terrorist, find an easier option for my lunatic destruction?

Speaking of which, the biggest step back here is the lack of a memorable villain. I watched this last night, and still had to look at the film’s Wikipedia page to remind me who the bad guy was. It’s not the fault of Michael Nyquist, who plays the villain. The character of Hendricks just isn’t giving much to establish him, beyond a rambling speech about how nuclear war might not be all bad. This might be a result of a script rewrite by future franchise director Christopher McQuarrie, after shooting had started. He said, “What I did was about clarity. The mystery had to be made simpler.” I wonder if reducing Hendricks to a human Macguffin was part of that streamlining process.

In general, the original assessment below remains accurate. There’s not the same intensely personal nature to the conflict which we saw in III, instead replaced by an overall concept that feels like an unused Bond plot from the eighties. That said, the execution is absolutely top-tier stuff. The Burg Khalifa sequence is arguably the finest action set-piece the series has to offer, and that’s going up against some very stern competition. Normally, I’m reluctant to pull back the curtain on movie-making. Here, though, right after viewing we headed to YouTube to look for behind-the-scenes videos, and were not disappointed. While there may not be much to generate any emotion beyond slack-jawed amazement, it’s capable of doing that on multiple occasions.

[January 2013] It’s interesting to watch this at the end of the year, and see how, in some ways, it pre-shadowed the “back to the future” approach taken by Skyfall: in some ways, going back to its origins, while in others, rushing forwards with the accelerator pushed to the metal. As in the very first film, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is framed for a crime he didn’t commit – here, the bombing of the Kremlin – and has to fight from out of the shadows to clear his name. However, this ramps up the technological aspects, with a near-blizzard of gadgetry, supported by an enhanced role for Pegg, as IMF’s “Q”, Benji Dunn.

Also part of the underground team are an IMF agent (Renner) who feels responsible for the death of Hunt’s wife and (likely so Hunt wouldn’t look gay), Jane Carter (Patton), who zip around the globe, from Moscow to Dubai to Mumbai, in search of a renegade villain who wants to trigger nuclear war because… Er, let’s just leave it at that, shall we? It’s really the kind of film that’s much more enjoyable at the time, rather than when you look back and realize how little depth is given to most of the characters. Bird, better known as one of Pixar’s guys, makes the shift from animation to live-action with aplomb, and gives the action sequences a fresh look and a lot of energy, most notably an extended sequence in the world’s tallest building, which combines climbing, running, fighting, the aforementioned technology and a sandstorm to impressively-kinetic effect.

Indeed, it’s so good that the actual climax, when it arrives, is somewhat underwhelming by comparison. Pegg is, as ever, a joy to watch – it’s clear producer J.J. Abrams thinks so, having used him both in this series and a not-dissimilar role in Star Trek. I’d have been happy to forego Cruise entirely, who is little more than a clothes-horse, on which cool action and gadgets can be hung. Still, the results are undeniably entertaining, though without any real emotional heart to lift it up into the true top tier for the genre. B