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Review: Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol Is a Thrilling and Ingenious Action Film

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Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol is an outstanding action thriller that happens to be the fourth entry in a long-running franchise (series retrospective). Like the three previous entries, this is a mostly stand-alone picture that feels absolutely like the work of its director.And if this entry feels a bit more like "just another day at the office" than the prior entries, it makes up for it with uncommonly impressive big-screen splendor. There is beautiful location work and obscenely impressive stunt-work that reminds us how wonderful action films can be when we are seeing something astounding while still being able to believe our eyes. It is easily the best entry since Brian DePalma's initial installment way back in 1996 and a top-notch piece of genre filmmaking.  It is easily the best espionage action-picture since Martin Campbell's Casino Royale and it is simply relentlessly engaging entertainment.  It is also a glorious return to form for Tom Cruise, as the film operates as a 133-minute rebuttal to those who would declare Cruise's career to be dead and buried.

The plot is pretty simple, arguably the most straightforward of the series.  In brief, a crazed Russian politician wants to incite nuclear war so that the planet may be cleansed and born anew, and he's doing the classic 'pit two superpowers against each other' gimmick to make it happen (Ernst Stavro Blofeld really should have patented that one... ) After IMF is implicated in a terrorist attack in Russia, a disavowed Ethan Hunt and his bare-bones team are forced to go off the grid in order to stop all-out nuclear devastation. That's pretty much all the story you need. The film is mostly a series of action set-pieces, but the picture is able to work character development into the action beats. The film almost operates as a procedural, as we spend most of our time in the planning stages of a given operation or the actual execution of said scheme. But nearly every set-piece is a winner, with the entire second act giving way to a scene of ever-rising tension and escalating stakes that stands as one of the finest extended action sequences in recent years.

Like the confident pro he is, Brad Bird shoots the action in fluid takes and long shots that establish a clear sense of geography and allows the audience to appreciate the technical work and old-school stunts at play. Of course, if you have the opportunity to see this in an IMAX theater, don't even think about seeing it in a regular 35mm auditorium.  There are a good 30 minutes of footage actually shot on IMAX film, and they are absolutely glorious.  But beyond the visceral thrills on display, Bird and company know exactly when to go for a joke and when to stay serious, and they know that nothing makes an action sequences as convincing as when the actor looks and acts genuinely terrified to be doing it.  Aside from the large-scale stunt-work, there is plenty of convincing hand-to-hand combat as well and the whole film serves as a reminder of how great an action movie can be when it has great action.

Despite rumblings that Jeremy Renner was being brought in as a torch-passing replacement, Tom Cruise dominates the proceedings with such pure zeal that the picture acts as a cleansing ritual for the last six years of public-relations issues. Cruise has always excelled when playing characters of pure intensity, and here his trademark sprints become a metaphor for his pledge to absolutely entertain you even if it kills him. Once again, Cruise does a number of absolutely insane stunts and wins the audience's empathy by being just as freaked out by them as you or I might be. In his fourth turn as Ethan Hunt, Cruise is basically daring the audience to declare him "over," basically saying "You may think I'm crazy in real life, but I WILL win you back by reminding you how much you love my movies!"

Renner does fine supporting work, and it's a charming and low-key turn that allows him to play the unabashed hero for the first time since he became a star.  He has been cast in about 600 in-production would-be franchises, and this film offers a taste of what he can bring to the table. Paula Patton gets the weakest share of the pie, as she is saddled with a needless "crisis of confidence" back-story and then briefly sidelined during the climax so that Renner can step in and help save the day (and her third-act scenes of sloppily attempting to seduce Anil Kapoor are almost discomforting). Simon Pegg returns as the comic relief from the last picture, and he's a better fit this time around in this altogether lighter entry.  The film genuinely misses the growing friendship between Ethan Hunt and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), but the new team acquits themselves nicely to the mission at hand.  Ironically despite the absence of the one continuing supporting character from the prior films, this entry actually works as an almost direct sequel to Mission: Impossible III, as Ethan's marriage is referenced on several occasions (Yay... continuity!).

Alas, one of the core problems with the film is the lack of a omnipresent villain.  Michael Nyqvist barely makes an impression as the lead antagonist and he pales in comparison to even Dougray Scott in the second film, let alone Philip Seymour Hoffman's icily detached arms dealer during the last go-around.  Also somewhat annoying is the lack of a real theme to this entry.  The first film dealt with a young and naive Ethan learning the dark side of espionage, the second film showed Hunt doing battle with an evil doppelganger version of himself, and the third picture concerned the now-married spy's horror as his professional life crashed headfirst into his personal life.  This fourth entry, while fantastically exciting and expertly crafted, basically feels like a Sean Connery or Roger Moore James Bond film, utterly episodic with no real arc for its lead character.  What little character growth does occur ironically takes place in a surprisingly moving epilogue, but the majority of the film is merely about a group of spies sent to take down a world-threatening baddie as if it was all-in-a-day's work for them.

Noted quibbles aside, Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol is a splendidly exciting piece of mainstream entertainment.  It is a dazzling action picture that genuinely impresses with its feats of daring-do and its overwhelming locations.  It may not be art, but it is a glorious piece of craft and displays more unadulterated  showmanship than any Earth-bound action picture of the last decade.  Paramount and Tom Cruise continue to make this series among the more exciting franchises out there because of their willingness to bring in different and unique directors for each installment and allowing them to shape a specifically personal vision for each film.  The gamble on Brad Bird certainly paid off this time around. Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol is simply wonderful entertainment.

Grade: A-
"Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol: the IMAX Experience"
2011
133 minutes
Rated PG-13