You know a tent-pole movie series is in trouble when it has to explain its title in its dialogue.
As in Tom Cruise saying, about midway through Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, to the rest of his crew, "We're going to Ghost Protocol. Ghost Protocol is..." and then explaining exactly what Ghost Protocol is. It has something to do with being disavowed by the government -- always a risk -- and going rogue to prove your own innocence.
Which turns out to be the same thing the IMF agents are always having to do: proving their innocence after terrorists make them the fall guys for some heinous deed. (In this case, it's the dynamiting of the Kremlin to cover the theft of nuclear-missile launch codes.)
The seams are showing badly in this fourth Mission: Impossible movie with Tom Cruise as Agent Ethan Hunt. Aside from blocks of exposition about the various code words, this movie is chopped up into a collection of action packages, some larger than the others. What holds them together is a familiar excuse for a plot: the brilliant maniac who has to be stopped before he triggers a world-wide conflagration. Didn't we just see that in the Sherlock Holmes movie?
Cruise looks great for someone about to turn 50. Still, this film makes it look as though he may be about to pass the M:I franchise baton to Jeremy Renner of The Hurt Locker, who shows up here as a State Department analyst with certain, shall we say, skills and holds up his end of the action.
Hunt is teamed with Renner (as the analyst Brandt), along with Paula Patton (Precious), as a fellow operative, and Simon Pegg, as Benji, still a computer nerd but, apparently, a field agent who actually carries a weapon beside a keyboard. They're tracking a terrorist named Cobalt (Michael Nyqvist of the Swedish Millennium movies series of Stieg Larsson's books), which has them bouncing around the globe from Moscow to Dubai, then to India and elsewhere.
But the script, by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, feels too jokey without being genuinely funny. Pegg is meant to be Cruise's comic sidekick, frustrating his super-cool sangfroid with his incessant jabbering. But jabbering and saying funny things are two different animals.
The elaborate stunt and special-effect sequences still manage to be breath-taking -- but it's probably useful (and pointless) to recall that much of the appeal of the original M:I (and at least the first couple of movies) was the element of outsmarting the villains (and the audience), as opposed to outrunning or outgunning him. These films -- like the James Bond films and just about any tent-pole series out there -- are built around running and gunning, however. Which makes even the eye-popping stunts -- like Cruise almost bare-handedly crawling up the outside of the 100th floor of a Dubai skyscraper -- seem a little less special.
Cruise is hardly challenging himself as an actor with a film like this. It's fast, explosive and exciting. But where the other Mission: Impossible films were calculated to appeal to the kid in adults, this film seems aimed right at kids, period.
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