As I alluded to last week, I got off to a bit of a rocky start with the Mission: Impossible movie series, with my initial outrage at how the first film in 1996 blowtorched the legacy of the TV show whose name it appropriated turning to apathy at how little of its name the 2000 sequel managed to embody. Thus, it really wasn't until 2006, and director J.J. Abrams' Mission: Impossible III, that I was willing to board the Tom Cruise-starring spy franchise, appreciating how it modernized key facets of its brand while preserving those things that made it unique (a maneuver Abrams repeated three years later with his canny Star Trek restart).
Sadly, despite marking a considerable qualitative uptick, that third Mission underperformed in relation to its two predecessors, and so when it came time to embark on the fourth installment (which dispenses with Roman numerals in favor of a sub-head -- the cinematic equivalent of fudging your birth date to seem younger), the mission placed in front of studio and star was to convince audiences that this 15-year old series still had something fresh to offer, and that Cruise could still put butts in seats even after a stream of bad publicity over the years accumulated like barnacles on his once-spotless superstar bona fides.
Like alter-ego Ethan Hunt, Cruise drafted an array of faces new and familiar to help him accomplish this. The good news starts with the fact that Abrams returned (in a producing capacity) to help shepherd the story, and the better news comes in the unexpected choice of director Brad Bird, making an impressive live action entrée after a career spent crafting some of the finest animation ever produced, from early (read: good) Simpsons to The Iron Giant to The Incredibles. The resultant mix gives us the strongest entry yet in the Mission: Impossible movie catalogue.
Starting with a cameo by one of Abrams' Lost alums that gets the McGuffin moving (literally, in this case), things quickly takes off, pausing only briefly for a title sequence that nicely homages the TV show's intro each week with a montage of context-free clips from that episode, cut to Lalo Schifrin's propulsive music. Hunt's team this time consists of returning Mission-eer Benji (Simon Pegg, upgraded to field duty after being "lab guy" in M:I - III) and new-to-us agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), with their job to stop a formerly high-ranked Russian official-turned-zealot (Michael Nyqvist) hoping to start a nuclear war to bring about peace (whaddya want, I said he's a zealot).
Also entering partway through the proceedings is data analyst William Brandt. If the fact that Brandt is played by two-time Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner isn't clue enough that there's more to his character than meets the eye, there's also the early scuttlebutt that pegged Renner as a potential vehicle to allow Cruise a graceful segue out of future Missions. But while Renner shows enough charisma and leading man chops that he could doubtless make a sterling replacement for Cruise, he'd still be hard-pressed to match the journeyman's job the series' signature star does here.
After so many years, this character (who was a cipher for the first two films and didn't really get a personality until movie three) has become a very comfortable fit for Cruise, who seems to be having an absolute blast putting Hunt through his paces, whether jumping off a building onto a van, exchanging blow-after-blow with the main baddie while cascading across the shifting levels of a moving parking garage or, in the unmistakeable highlight for sheer spectacle alone, dangling several miles above the ground off Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building*.
In fact, in what's become something of an annoying trend for me in recent action movies, Cruise takes such a sustained level of pounding throughout that by the end he's received enough impacts to the head that he should have been rendered comatose several over times by now. I had a similar complaint with the latest Die Hard (which I also enjoyed, by the way) and how Bruce Willis' ostensibly-human John McClane engaged in the kind of death-defying antics that would have left anyone else either a fine mist or a thick paste. Still, in an offering like this, that's one of those "yeah, okay" conceits we just end up having to roll with. And roll with it we do.
As we saw last year, a director making the switch over from animation to live action doesn't always come off nearly as smooth, and Bird's work here is one of the strongest directorial "debuts" I've ever seen. Thanks to his confidence behind the wheel, Ghost Protocol is a polished, consummate piece of pop entertainment. It's fun in the right places, funny in the right places, and the skillful dispatching of returned and recruited personnel onscreen and off, points the way to several more entries in this series before it ever need worry about self-destructing. A
* Many scenes, including the Dubai stuff, were shot in IMAX and take full advantage of the format's jumbo-sized aspect ratio. While it plays well enough on standard screens, this is one of those instances where the added premium for the bigger screen is well worth the price.