With Tintin, live-action director Steven Spielberg takes on what is essentially an animated movie, and on the same day, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol goes into wide release, marking animator Brad Bird's first live-action feature. Taking on the demands of a live-action movie is daunting enough when one is accustomed to the four years that go into the average computer-animated film, but to take on an action movie with the scope and scale of a Mission: Impossible film is a real challenge, but Bird is mostly up to the task.
The story is as straightforward as they come: something bad is going to happen, and it's up to Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team need to stop it. In this case, the threat is a Russian nuclear missile, controlled by Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a former government expert on nuclear war who believes that peace can never be achieved without a little fallout. Hendricks bombs the Kremlin and pins it on Ethan and his IMF team, resulting in the disavowal of the entire agency and putting both the US and Russia at each other's throats. Hunt finds himself stranded in the field with fellow field agents Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and an analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner), with a one-chance, race-against-time chance to stop Hendricks from reclaiming the launch codes for his missile and inciting World War III.
For the most part, Bird steps up to the plate with the action sequences, which are almost certainly the best in the series. The obvious highlight is an extended sequence in Dubai that starts with Ethan clinging to the windows of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and ends with a sequence involving a sandstorm sweeping over the city. The Burj Dubai sequence was filmed for real on the outside of the building almost a mile off the ground in the IMAX format, and Bird's shots looking down on Cruise from above are sure to give the audience instant vertigo. It doesn't hurt that the director throws in some distinctly Pixar-like last-minute obstacles, including gadgets that don't work and a need to leap back into the building once the crucial task at hand is completed, both of which result in some heart-attack worthy moments. Bird also stages an excellent finale inside a cutting-edge parking garage, which sees characters leaping onto and off of moving elevated platforms, all while trying to interact around and with the cars.
When the film is not focused on action, however, it falters. In the absence of the Luther character played by Ving Rhames -- the glue that holds the previous Mission: Impossible teams together -- the ensemble cast falters. Even though his couch-jumping meltdown was almost six years ago, Cruise is still visibly in damage-control mode, determined to keep Ghost Protocol from suffering the same fate as M:I:III. There is never a moment of his that doesn't feel calculated to generate the maximum amount audience goodwill, and it's totally disingenous. Pegg, a holdover from the previous chapter, feels untethered from the script. An early scene where he's paired with a stone-faced and silent Cruise is a textbook example of giving a clever comic star too much free reign; although Pegg doesn't exactly shoot himself in the foot, he does sort of wear out his welcome. Patton is gorgeous (and not stick-thin), handles the action decently, and gives a flat, nearly terrible performance that consists mainly of a furrowed brow and determined stare. Only Renner is completely on-target, and even his part is saddled with unnecessary backstory. The closest thing the series has ever come to emotional investment is seeing Ethan and Luther return in each chapter, and this fourth one doesn't make a good case to start switching up the formula.
Writers Josh Applebaum and André Nemec also fail to deliver a cohesive script, which somewhat awkwardly picks up threads from the previous chapter (a first for the series). The third film in the series had a wonderfully cold-blooded villain in Philip Seymour Hoffman and an exciting story that kept the suspense up in the scenes between the action beats. Ghost Protocol plays its cards too close to the chest, giving Ethan mysterious motivation and trying to hang the audience's investment on a revenge plot that means nothing (a prologue setting it up is cool, but I can't say I really cared). Worst of all, Nykvqist's villain is hardly there, sapping the film of forward momentum. Motivation for the characters is almost always present within a scene, but the scenes never feel motivated by the overall story.
On the giant IMAX screen, with images that have so much depth and dimension, you'll almost swear you're watching a 3D movie, Ghost Protocol is a mission worth accepting, and it's an impressive debut for Bird, who successfully corrals his megastar and the endless complications of a big-budget action movie enough to get the pulse racing. It's not an achievement to sniff at, especially for a first-time director, but it's still hard not to shake the idea that with another draft of the script and a couple more weeks of production, the film as a whole might hang as high as Cruise does.
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