After a short prologue, we're reunited with IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise), lounging around in a Russian prison. Fellow agents Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, returning from III) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton) show up and spring him in the hopes he can help them stop a man named Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), codenamed Cobalt, a former government expert on nuclear war who eventually concluded that peace can never be achieved without a little fallout. Hunt and his team go to gather intelligence, but Hendricks is a step ahead, bombing the Kremlin and pinning it on Ethan's team. A few hours later, the entire IMF is disavowed, the US and Russia are at each other's throats, and the three agents are stranded in the field with an analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner), armed only with one cache of equipment and a one-chance, race-against-time opportunity to stop Hendricks from inciting World War III.
The strengths of the third film were pacing and stakes. Nothing like an explosive charge in the brain to generate tension. Still, as logical as it sounds to humanize and dimensionalize Ethan Hunt, the Mission: Impossible franchise doesn't really need nor is designed to sustain the amount of sentiment Abrams brought to the table. Bird pulls back, losing some of the personal stakes in the process (more on this later), but offers even tighter pacing and more action-oriented tension. Bird, long associated with Pixar (where he directed The Incredibles), clearly embraces the technique disclosed on the Toy Story commentary: give your protagonist an easy solution, and then undercut it for something better. The entire Dubai sequence (practically a third of the film), is peppered with great examples of this lesson in action, most of which involve taking away all the IMF's fancy gadgets.
For all he throws aside, however, Bird is also wise to keep the rough-and-tumble realism of Abrams' film. Ghost Protocol is a long way from the ridiculous stunts of the John Woo entry in the series, both in style and simply in years. Ethan takes a hell of a beating in Ghost Protocol, but that actually dovetails nicely with both the gritty realism brought on by the Bourne franchise and Cruise's advancing age. As much as Cruise's performance style remains unchanged, the wrinkles and weariness sit well on Ethan, particularly with the group responsibility on his back. It helps, too, that Bird's sequences are practical stunners, like a chase sequence through a sandstorm, a down-and-dirty fistfight inside a futuristic parking garage, and of course, the heavily advertised sequence with Cruise really dangling on the outside of the Burj. Although this Blu-Ray doesn't include the expanding aspect ratio of the IMAX sequences (a real shame), Bird's top-down view is more than enough to inspire instant vertigo. Bird also hangs onto Pegg and brings out even more humor than Abrams, something the other Mission films didn't always offer.
There are a few speedbumps. Although Nyqvist makes enough of an impression as Hendricks, he's still hardly there; his right-hand man gets more screen time than he does. Worse, Bird and his screenwriters Appelbaum and Nemec have only taken away the heartstring-tugging material from Cruise in order to pile it onto Patton and Renner. Renner does a decent job of elevating cliche into something watchable, but Patton flat-out fumbles the emotional scenes, doing little more than grimace. Still, it doesn't help that her character is stuck being "the woman" -- she's the one who has to seduce a businessman (Anil Kapoor), she's the one who gets emotionally overwhelmed, and worst of all, she ends up in a distressingly gendered rivalry with an assassin (Léa Seydoux) that left a bad taste in my mouth. At the same time, Bird's choices make enough sense: slimming Nyqvist's role keeps the pace up, Patton has an excellent (and important) scene with Cruise she couldn't have without her character's backstory, and the Brandt material ends up shining in comparison to other action movies who would be satisfied with half of what Ghost Protocol ends up revealing in an overstuffed but pleasing epilogue. It's not perfect, but it's better than I thought it was, and easily the best of the Mission series.
The Video and Audio
Although I don't have the equipment to decode the audio in full Dolby TrueHD 7.1, the sound is on par with the video. Every crunch and crack of glass during the final fight is crystal clear. The scene where Ethan and Benji infiltrate the Kremlin (which is mostly silent) is a wonderful example of the track's exceptional ambience and detail, picking up every quiet shuffle of the character's feet and providing a nice "deafening silence." The track also gets a chance to do the opposite during the sandstorm sequence, which whips and howls through the speakers with a detailed, realistic ferocity that is pretty much unrivaled. If I had one minor complaint, it would be that some of the music cues seemed much louder than the dialogue, but it's an insignificant nitpick, really. French, Spanish, and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also included, as well as English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles, and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Deleted Scenes (15:02) include a few interesting tidbits. An alternate version of the post-jailbreak van conversation reveals the trials and tribulations of shooting an action movie -- what do the characters know, and when? It's interesting to look at this sequence and compare it to the one in the finished film, which plays so much better and must be the result of several people with their thinking caps on. Not surprisingly, there's some more of Hendricks here as well, including an extended, alternate scene where Hendricks picks up Leonid Lisenker that gives the audience more of an insight into his head. Interesting, but the film really is okay without it. I also really liked some of the details in an alternate plane scene between Patton and Cruise, some callbacks to which remain in the finished film. Brad Bird provides brief optional commentary on the deleted scenes explaining the reasons they were cut; it's a shame he doesn't comment on the entire film.
Two original theatrical trailers are also included. All of this footage is presented in HD.