From the time it was announced, there was an air of slight desperation about the fourth film in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Star Tom Cruise is pushing 50, and the last entry had somewhat underperformed, having the misfortune to open less than a year after all the couch-jumping and other weirdness that left American feeling a little uneasy about its biggest box-office star. His subsequent films haven't done all that hot either (remember Knight & Day?), so it was time to go back to the well. From the casting of Jeremy Renner (maybe he's being groomed to take over!) to the emo key art (hoodies!) to the trailer music (Eminem! See, edgy!), one couldn't shake the feeling that Cruise and company knew that they had to make this one count, and were working a little too hard at it.
What strange is how none of that comes across on-screen. Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol is a smooth, confident, masterfully executed spy thriller, a crackerjack popcorn entertainment that's bursting with neat toys, slick suits, and good fun. It's sleek and pleasurable, and marks a live-action debut by Pixar favorite Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) that is astonishingly assured.
The M:I films have always been very much about their directors, which is part of the reason that the franchise is four pictures in and still has little in the way of a consistent aesthetic. The first film was helmed by Brian DePalma, who infused it with his signature visual intricacy and stylish energy. Part two was the work of John Woo, who gave it all of his expected flourishes at right about the point where he was beginning to lapse into self-parody. J.J. Abrams took over for the third picture, and ended up with a film that looked like a Tom Cruise-fronted episode of Alias.
And now we have Bird, a filmmaker who doesn't bring the same sort of stylistic baggage to the series as his predecessors. If anything, he appears to have studied the James Bond pictures, and to have taken away from them exactly the right elements. Courtesy of screenwriters Josh Applebaum and André Nemec, he's got a plot that understands, and walks the line, between complicated and convoluted; it also provides a framework for a series of spectacularly exciting set pieces.
He knows we've seen car chases before, so he stages his in the middle of a sandstorm. He knows we've seen fistfights before, so he places his in the middle of one of the futuristic stacking garages, where metal platforms lift and arrange the cars (and, in this case, the two men brawling on them). He knows we've seen breathless heist scenes before (hell, the first M:I had one of the best in recent memory), but we haven't seen one like this, which uses a well-placed projection screen in a manner so clever as to gobsmack the audience.
And we've seen Tom Cruise scale ridiculous heights before, but we've not seen a sequence like his climb up the 100-plus story Burj Khalifa in Dubai. I have no idea how this sequence was done; all I know is that it is terrifying and thrilling, leaving this viewer gasping and curling up into the seat. There is something to be said for having the "IMAX Experience" of watching this scene, which involves the viewer in the action in a way I've seldom seen (though vertigo sufferers might choose this moment for a bathroom break).
What's great about M:I-GP, though, is that Bird and his writers acknowledge that Cruise's Ethan Hunt might have to be talked into this little jaunt around the world's tallest building. That's a funny scene--one of several little throwaway moments that Bird gives a wicked comic snap. He's got a cockeyed sense of humor, this one, and it surfaces in his peculiar music choice for the early prison break, or the way he toys with our expectations about the iconic self-destructing message.
He's also got an ideal comic relief delivery system in the form of Simon Pegg, a performer inherently funny enough to carry off the wacky computer genius sidekick role as if it's not a tired, worn-out type. Pegg and the writers give it an extra spin by making his Benji newly promoted to the field, so his enthusiastic small talk ("This is very exciting, being out in the field... love your disguise, by the way...") generates some hearty laughs. Renner proves an especially adept addition to the series--this viewer would be fine if he did, in fact, take over for Cruise--as does Paula Patton, whose action beats are spirited and gregarious. There is also something almost revolutionary about the fact that she does not serve as a romantic interest for Cruise; wait, these are two great-looking people, the conventional wisdom goes, so they have to fall into bed at some point, right? Maybe not.
Cruise is as sturdy and reliable an anchoring presence as ever; maybe he is pushing 50, but he doesn't look it, and certainly doesn't act it. Say what you will about his personal peculiarities and peccadillos, but this is an actor who, from the beginning of his career, has distinguished himself by making smart decisions about who he works with--no actor of his generation has a resumé with as many great filmmakers on it (Kubrick, Stone, Scorsese, Spielberg, Mann, Crowe, Howard, Pollack, Levinson, PT Anderson). Finding the director to revitalize the Mission: Impossible franchise, and thus maintain the actor's box office relevance, was a giant decision--and choosing Bird was a risky way to go. It's a risk that paid off. Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol is easily the best film in the series.