Possibly the Best Impossible Mission

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol review

I’ve been a fan of the Mission: Impossible franchise from the get go.  Seeing Tom Cruise leap from an exploding helicopter onto a moving train in a tunnel will do that to you.  Having never seen the original TV series (and still having no desire to do so), I have enjoyed the gadget-induced action/spy franchise in each incarnation, each with their own signature style.  Originally, the intent was to hire a new director per movie to put their own stylistic spin on the franchise and for the most part, they’ve succeeded in that.

The first MI, directed by Brian DePalma was a nail-biting caper with some outlandishly exciting stunts.  It also turned the original series on its ear by making the long-running MI hero, Jim Phelps, into a villain, paving the way for new blood Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise).  It was a crushing blow to loyalists of the show (who are what? 60?), but a bold move for an adaptation.

The second MI was directed by Hong Kong action maestro John Woo who splashed his slow-mo bullet frenzied style all over the film, creating a more action oriented film than a spy film.  It was essentially an opportunity for Cruise to work with Woo and get to shoot two guns at once in slow motion.  (It’s also the movie that cost Dougray Scott, the film’s villain, the role of Wolverine in the X-Men films, due to extended shooting).

The third MI was a perfect hybrid of the first two films and injected with the slickness of director J.J. Abrams clean, fast style.  It was also the first film in which Ethan Hunt was given an emotional core and a bit of a history.  Up until the third film we learned very little about Ethan Hunt.  We know he is a super bad ass agent, can use every gadget tossed his way, likes to climb, ride bikes, and alternate hair styles.  Essentially, Ethan Hunt WAS Tom Cruise.

In the fourth, latest installment, the keys to the MI franchise have been tossed to Brad Bird, director of the Disney Pixar films Ratattouie and The Incredibles, two very fun, energetic, imaginative, and even exhilarating films from an unlikely choice to direct a big-budget, live action franchise.  However, I had faith in Bird from the start.  An animator is going to see things differently and bring something new and fresh to the live action realm and I felt that Bird would succeed greatly.

And I was not wrong.

Bird brings his signature to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol with ease.  The haute tension, the playfulness, the characters, all of it is there.  In many ways I could see the film as a Pixar film.  Bird stages his frames and shoots cleanly.  It’s obvious that he paid close attention to how he put the film together and you won’t find any of the lazy “handi-cam” shots that were done so well in the Bourne Identity series, but copied by so many other films with much less success.

This time out Cruise’s Hunt is thrust into the action from the very beginning and doesn’t let up until the very last scene.  Given everything that he goes through in this film, especially in such a short while you have to wonder if we should label the MI franchise a superhero franchise.  Cruise performs a number of high wire stunts, including climbing the world’s tallest building in Dubai.  Have fun trying to spot the stuntman.  It’s never obvious as Cruise did the majority of his own stunt work.  For a 49-year-old actor that’s pretty impressive.

Everything is amped to the next level in this film; the action, the stunts, and the stakes.  And the movie just flows.  I never felt the urge to know what time it was or the sense of urgency to “get on with it.”  The intensity was always at a level that kept me in the moment and that’s a difficult feat to accomplish in today’s short-attention spanned minds.  Including mine.

This is also the first MI film that continues story threads from the previous film.  The first three films could all have been standalone entries, but the fourth one picks up characters and story threads from the third and continues them.  For the first time, Ethan has a true history and begins to formulate into a character rather than Tom Cruise just being himself.  It’s a welcome surprise and the storyline is handled in a way that keeps you guessing until the very end when all is revealed.  It’s clever and fun and provides that much more depth to Cruise’s Hunt.

Cruise deserves his kudos here.  I mean, the guy got blasted for jumping on a couch on Oprah and for speaking out about his Scientology beliefs.  For that, he was all but “Gibsoned.”  Cruise suffered some box office sputtering with the solid “Valkyrie” and the not-so-solid “Knight and Day,” and swallowed his share of humble pie as a result, even if he didn’t really deserve it.  However, with MI4, Cruise is back in top form.  He’s starting to show his age, even if only a little, but his maturity is what helps to put him back on top.  Cruise, it seems, has accepted this to a large extent, yet doesn’t let anything hinder him from putting it all out there.  I think we can let him back in the clubhouse now.

Naturally, the MI franchise has its supporting cast to contend with and this time out they used MI3’s Simon Pegg, now a field agent, instead of the usual Ving Rhames tech, a change that I feel was absolutely necessary.  Pegg is his usual funny and clumsy self, making his Benji character an easy fit.  Jeremy Renner comes onboard as an “analyst” with a few secrets of his own.  He slides in perfectly with the cast, playing off each character with ease, charisma, and humor.  Finally, we have the absolutely lovely Paula Patton who is stunning, sexy, and tough as an agent with an eye toward revenge.  Also, GREAT cleavage.  That’s important.

There’s a few star cameos, including Lost’s Josh Holloway and the always awesome Tom Wilkenson.  The main villain is none other than the star of the Swedish “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” films, Michael Nyqvist, who is compelling and scary as a Russian terrorist seeking to set off nuclear devices around the world.

The film is go, go, go from opening to closing frame.  It’s an unrelenting action spy opera with enough action, chills, charm, humor, and stunts to leave you much like you’d be after stepping off of a kick ass rollercoaster ride; exhilarated and ready to go again.  Michael Giacchino’s score pulse pounds the film for every frame and is so absolutely fitting it’s almost sickening.  The locales and the gadgets are exceptional, neither being too much of a retread and with plenty of sparks of originality.  I also like the gadgets don’t always work perfectly and sometimes just fail outright.  It’s unique touches like that, which makes MI4 retain a sense of newness.  It’s familiar, but certainly not rehash.

For his part, Tom Cruise must have set a world record for “most running in a movie,” as he just never stops running.  His physicality is every bit a part of his performance as anything else and he absolutely proves he’s up to the challenge.  There’s a certain intensity that he brings, which has always been there I suppose, that really shines through with this entry and it’s great to see.

You would be hard pressed to find a better action film this year, especially one that is as smart and witty as it is thrilling.  For my money, the fourth entry is the best of the bunch and I hope to see the ever-growing character of Ethan Hunt continue his trek until Cruise no longer can.

One of the best of the year: 10/10

3 Responses to Possibly the Best Impossible Mission

  1. Zaki January 14, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    Agree completely about this movie. Seen it twice now and loved it unreservedly both times.

    I do take exception, however, with your statement that you’ve been onboard the franchise from the beginning, considering some of your comments regarding the original show. I’m one of those loyalists you speak of, and I’m pretty sure I’m nowhere near 60 just yet… 😉

    As far as the first movie’s disposition of Jim Phelps, I’d disagree with it being a “bold” choice, as all it ultimately did was to prop up the new model M:I at the expense of its predecessor — not particularly bold, IMO. Think about it this way: what if the new movie set up Brandt as the eventual new leader of the IMF by revealing that Ethan Hunt was a traitor? You (and I) would rightly blanche, because after three movies of investment, it would be a betrayal to both the character and the audience.

    In that vein, the first M:I flick invalidates in hindsight eight TV seasons of a character consistently portrayed — without exception — as noble and heroic. And for what? A twist that won’t mean anything to new audiences anyway, and will just infuriate the folks who loved the original show(s) and wanted to see how it translated to the big screen. What’s the point? Would it really have hurt the movie to have Phelps die heroically while a new/different IM operative turned out be the traitor? I would argue no.

    Another analogy that seems appropriate is if STAR TREK GENERATIONS, the first movie for THE NEXT GENERATION, revolved around Captain Kirk being revealed as a traitor to the Federation who conspired against his crew with the Romulans or whatever, and it was up to Captain Picard to stop him. Trekkie or no, it would be an artificial twist, because it wouldn’t be rooted in any legitimate interpretation of the character as he’d developed over his history.

    The DePalma movie rebooted the M:I franchise by blowing up the very legacy it was built on. Compare that with JJ Abrams’ approach to both M:I and STAR TREK, all about moving the brand(s) forward while still honoring and including every part of the lineage they’re a part of. This is why I was so bummed when Peter Graves passed away, as it robbed Abrams of the opportunity to somehow redeem the Phelps character — a stated goal.

    Anyway, that’s just my fifty cents…sorry to drone on. Love to hear your thoughts.

    • Paul Shirey January 14, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

      I see your point on those who watched the show possibly being upended over Phelps being a traitor, but still…are you sure you’re not 60? I think you are a very rare bird indeed who watched the original TV series. I mean, you weren’t even close to being born when it originally aired. You are a nostalgic viewer, to be sure, and you are a loyal fan, no doubt, but still in the minority.

      The majority of the audience for the first MI is/was considerably new to the franchise. The most any of us (as I’ve never seen the original show) were familiar with the theme, which is used in every possible venue it can get it’s grimy little notes on, and…well, that’s about it.

      I think it’s a case of minority vs. majority and most of us could care less. That being said, I can still see your perspective and won’t invalidate it. I think it’s a valid feeling for a loyal follower. Unfortunately, there are times when our “beloved” heroes become something else in the hands of the next creative caretaker and sometimes the J.J. Abrams doesn’t come to the rescue soon enough, as is the case with DePalma already getting his turd fingers on the franchise. (DePalma is/was a talented filmmaker, but ever since Redacted and his insistence on sharing his politics with everyone he’s become synonymous with a sewer drain.)

      I hope that Cruise continues with the franchise as I like him in the role now. However, when talking about the “why”…let’s think about this, because it’s one of the ONLY issues I have with any of the MI movies…WHY do any of these agents do what they do? Loyalty? Patriotism? Because in all reality, Ethan Hunt has done nothing but get fucked over while trying to save the world time and again and it’s almost always by someone on the inside. Perhaps Phelps felt the same way?

  2. Zaki January 14, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    No lie, as I’m sure you can tell from my comments above and my own site, I’m a huge fan of the original show. Loved it when I was a kid, and I still love watching it on Netflix. But bear in mind that it ran for seven seasons from ’66-’73, and was revived from ’88-90, so I don’t think I’m as much of a rarity as you think. And while I agree that it had somewhat faded from the pop culture mainstream by the time of the first movie, that just reinforces my earlier point about the Phelps switcheroo being neither here nor there.

    As I said, the only people who’d recognize the character enough to make his turn impactful would be the same folks you’re just going to piss off anyway, and for newbies he’s just Tom Cruise’s old boss gone bad. They could easily have had their cake and ate it too by essentially splitting “Phelps” into two characters — Ethan’s mentor and the treacherous IMF guy. Problem solved.

    Of course, it’s all academic anyway, and just to be clear, I’m not nearly as exorcised about this as it may come across (text doesn’t always connote tone, as you know). I do view the first movie as a tremendous missed opportunity (and the second film is so far removed from what makes M:I distinctly M:I that I haven’t even bothered revisiting it since it left me apathetic eleven summers ago). I’m glad the movie series is finally emulating the style and tone of the show that inspired it, though, and look forward to the next entry — something I couldn’t say fifteen years ago when this thing started!

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