Choosing to Accept It, by Scott Nye
The Mission: Impossible series is, on so many levels, my kind of franchise. I mean, sure, you have to look past that second one, but even just looking at it as (now) three films, you have a pretty impressive feat. Each of those films has a flavor all its own (thanks to each being helmed by a different director), the series as a whole has almost no continuity, but they still feel somewhat of a piece. And better still, they offer a certain promise, that thanks to the leadership of producer/star Tom Cruise, the set pieces will be boundlessly inventive and jaw-dropping. On that level, Ghost Protocol is almost certainly the best one yet, but it also suffers from a certain lack of fluidity that’s a little jarring. It doesn’t have the playfulness of the third film nor the ratcheting suspense of the first, the villain is an afterthought, and there’s an unfortunate anonymity to Brad Bird’s assured direction, but none of that stops it from being the best action film of the year.
The bare sketch of a storyline is a chase for nuclear launch codes before they fall into the hands of a Russian nuclear strategist hell-bent on, well, pretty much launching them for the hell of it. When we meet Ethan Hunt (Cruise), he’s locked up in a Russian prison, and in a rather thrilling sequence, is sprung from said prison by Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who will become his team for the remainder of the film. They’re then given a rather standard break-into-the-impossible-to-break-into-facility (in this case the Kremlin), and the plot gets off and running in a big way (particularly when it actually is Tom Cruise running).
The set pieces that follow are almost indescribable. The one seen in the trailer, in which Ethan has to scale the world’s tallest building, is pretty damn impressive, but it’s also only the tip of the iceberg. I mean, we’ve got car chases through sandstorms, the prison breakout, the entire Kremlin sequence and the multiple complications that arise, a shoot-out that quickly results in an underwater escape, and, well, to say much more would spoil the fun. It feels like screenwriters Andre Nemec and Josh Appelbaum took a page from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest handbook and crafted their story around the set pieces, which makes what little storytelling there is kind of impressive in terms of just getting these people to the various locations in a relatively coherent way. The set pieces are one huge idea after another, and integrating these kinds of things into a feature isn’t always easy, so, you know, props to them.
Unfortunately, they don’t know character from a potted plant. I don’t require my pop entertainment take the tact of The Descendants or anything, but some quickly-sketched, exciting archetypes would suffice (and this is one of the finer, less-appreciated aspects of the first and third Impossible films, along with most great action films). Hunt’s pretty well-defined at this point (he’s Tom Cruise!), but he’s given no personal investment. In the first film, he was grappling with betrayal and leading a team for the first time, and in the third, he was chasing after his new wife. Both carefully integrated the character journey with the plot, which is really the only way to do action film storytelling. Here, I mean, trying to save the world is great and all, and Cruise naturally brings a certain immediacy to his performance, but the personal stakes are actually kind of low. Nemec and Appelbaum rather gratingly try to force in some “character moments,” but they’re way out of their league. By the time they get around to Jane and, worse, William Brandt (Jeremy Renner, joining the team after things go REALLY wrong, and apparently largely serving to showcase how much cooler Tom Cruise is than anyone else ever), their ham-fisted attempts to wring any sort of emotion from this story are unbearable. The plot and character arcs are almost wholly separate, and since so little attention is paid to the latter, they naturally suffer.
And I know that you’re not going to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol looking for this kind of stuff, but it does matter in shaping the overall piece, and it goes a long way towards explaining that while the set pieces and individual moments work so unbelievably well, the film as a whole never really hits its stride. It also doesn’t help that the villain is a total waste. Anyone would suffer after Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s force-of-nature performance in III, but couldn’t they have found someone slightly exciting? Or at least used his elusiveness as a point of mystery?
But those scenes, man… they’re something else. Making his live-action debut, Bird really knocks this stuff out of the park, bringing a clear passion for the genre tropes and the sort of zeal that comes with getting to play with the world’s biggest toy train. He definitely has some growth ahead of him, especially in directing actors, and even in the entertainment areas. A lot more suspense could have been wrought from most of his big scenes, but his work in conveying action is exceptional. Clean, clear, easy-to-read, and genuinely propulsive. His pacing is great, keeping just one step ahead of the audience as revelations and bursts of violence take place just when you’re getting cozy. For what is in many ways a feature debut, it’s pretty incredible work.
And in spite of the noted flaws, Ghost Protocol is a whole hell of a lot of fun to watch. I don’t terribly like thinking in these terms, but to say you get your money’s worth is an understatement. They really go above and beyond in terms of crafting and delivering spectacle, and in terms of empty calories, it’s hard to find many that taste better than this (I smell pull-quote!).