Four different directors have taken the Mission: Impossible franchise for a spin, and at least three of those films couldn't be more divergent from one another. For my money, Brian De Palma's first film is still the best of all of them, combining tremendous action sequences with the kind of gadget-heavy, utterly mind-bending espionage of the greatest spy films. John Woo's second film eschewed the cleverness in favor of more aggressively over-the-top action (and doves--lots and lots of doves), while J.J. Abrams' third movie attempted to add emotional heft to the actions of characters who, up to that point in the series, had seemed largely devoid of anything resembling real emotion.
Now, 15 years after the first film's debut, director Brad Bird has finally brought everything full-circle. Working from a script penned by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemic, Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol revisits the combination of plot-twisting intrigue and kinetic action that made the first film so very good. It's a return to form for a franchise that's been out of form for the vast bulk of its existence, and a potent reminder that spy fiction doesn't necessarily have to steep itself in brooding sullenness to still be relevant in the modern age. Take that, James Bond?
It's an especially impressive feat given that this is Bird's first live action film. Bird, whose work in the animated world on films like The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille all but assures him a place among the animation medium's best directors, is now suddenly tasked with making live actors bend to his will. That there is no awkwardness, no hesitation anywhere to be found in his direction is kind of amazing. He takes these characters--only some of which are holdovers from the previous films--and simply makes them his own. He stages action sequences as ludicrous and blisteringly-paced as anything seen in movies to date, and does so with such care and attention to detail that you'd think he'd been making action movies for decades. This may very well be the birth of our next great action director.
But before any of those insane setpiece stunts come to bear: a plot. When the film opens, series stalwart Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, back in long-hair mode) is trapped in a Russian prison, yet seems none-too-worried about it. He is broken out in a rather fantastic sequence involving Mission: Impossible III holdover Simon Pegg, new agent Paula Patton, and a fairly creative use of Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick in the Head." Many a Russian prisoner and prison guard are beaten half to death--Cruise barely musses his hair.
Several things happen in between that scene and the part I'll describe next, but they're too fun to spoil. I'll simply skip ahead and divulge that at a certain point, it becomes clear that the Impossible Mission Force has been framed for a bombing of the Kremlin it did not commit. It was the work of a psychotic nuclear terrorist (Michael Nyqvist) who, like most good psychotic nuclear terrorists, simply wants to start a war between America and Russia. Perhaps China is a more believable foe these days, but hey, I'm always down for a good Cold War throwback.
All of this is explained to Ethan by the Secretary of the IMF, who is played all-too-briefly by Tom Wilkinson, and his associate, a mysterious analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner). He tells them that the IMF is disavowed, that Ethan is essentially a man without a country, and now his mission is to clear their name by catching the real villain in the act. He'll have to do this with no assistance from the agency. He, and his team, are on their own.
Maybe it's just me, but I'm often happier when things go horribly wrong like this in spy films. One of the key staples of this genre is that spy agencies are essentially all-knowing problem solvers, with technology and access that transcends any conceivable problem that may arise. Part of what made the first Mission: Impossible so exciting was this very scenario, with Ethan Hunt on the run, framed for a crime he did not commit. This forced him into uncomfortable situations that do not always provide him the exact right tool for the job. He and his team were often flying semi-blind, by the seat of their pants. The same holds true here, though Bird's take on the material is a good bit more frantic than anything the first film brought to the table.
Bird relishes in stacking the odds against the team. Every single mission scenario goes wrong, then wronger, then somehow even wronger, until reaching a breaking point where the crackerjack timing required to succeed is beyond ridiculous. But that's what we want out of these films. no? We want Ethan Hunt to get into increasingly insane situations that any lesser man would just throw his hands up at and walk away from. We certainly don't come for the rich, textured characterization of Ethan Hunt. After all, the character is basically just Tom Cruise playing himself, except with James Bond's more tactical elements slathered on. He sure does look good running away from an explosion, though. Here he does it twice, even!
Because of those impossible stakes, the tension goes from merely rough to laughably crazy. Bird frames every hit, every fall, every crash as if it were the most atrociously painful thing to ever befall a man, and seemingly revels in making these characters out to be simultaneously superhuman and totally vulnerable.
And like any good spy vehicle, the locales and sets are exotic and breathtaking. An elongated sequence atop Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, is exhilarating. A late-game battle atop an automated carpark in Mumbai is one of the best final fight scenes in an action movie I've seen in ages. These sequences benefit greatly from the IMAX format, in which the film is currently exclusively playing (it goes into regular theaters next week). IMAX is something often promoted but rarely beneficial to a film's action. Here, it's something close to vital.
Sure, there are nitpicks to be had with Ghost Protocol. A subplot involving a Russian investigator hunting Ethan is mostly forgettable, and comes back around in less-than-exciting fashion. Renner, who is being positioned as the heir to Cruise's spy throne, has some fun scenes, but isn't given an awful lot to do to establish himself, beyond a couple of ennui-laden monologues. And that aforementioned psycho terrorist, the one who wants to blow up the world? He's practically a MacGuffin. His motives are barely laid out, and his character is more notable for his inexplicable ability to go toe-to-toe with Cruise in a fistfight, despite his paunchy, unassuming physical structure. He must be hiding a lot of muscle underneath those jowls.
But those quibbles do little to undermine a legitimately thrilling, altogether terrific spy thriller, the likes of which the genre hasn't seen since, well, the first Mission: Impossible. After numerous attempts to revitalize this series with various directors all having their own take on what a Mission: Impossible movie should look like, it turns out it took an outsider director taking things back to the start to finally bring some energy back to this series. I now look forward to whatever Mission: Impossible's producers plan to do next, though whatever it is, I hope Brad Bird is somehow involved.