Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Miguel Penabella | 20 December 2011

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Dir. Brad Bird, 2011

There is a sense of self-deprecation running through the Daniel Craig-helmed James Bond films because of the gritty, de-romanticized realism of British espionage, a style that seems to advocate modern “contemporary-ness” in the vein of one of the most successful action thrillers this past few years, the Bourne series. This pervading sense of needing to maintain a level of stark, dirty realism in Bond films is a bizarre lapse from the overly fantastic, glamorized films of the past, though the shift looks to be working out quite nicely for the franchise after such quality films as Casino Royale and (yes, I do defend it) Quantum of Solace. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol on the other hand, serves as the yang to Bond’s yin, a counter-concept that imagines ludicrous action and larger-than-life characters delivered with such adrenaline-pumping gusto by director Brad Bird’s alluring, seemingly unflinching direction. Ghost Protocol instills its characters with invincible personas, a far cry from Daniel Craig’s rendition of a more reserved, flawed, and vulnerable outing as James Bond. While both series have their own strengths, Bird’s film manages to deliver an exceptionally tight and enthralling spectacle that easily surpasses any Mission: Impossible film effort of the past.

Lacking the faux political/sociological commentary of films like The Bourne Ultimatum or Quantum of Solace which probe into capitalist corruption and governmental bureaucratics, Ghost Protocol instead opts for a straightforward premise in which the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) team is falsely accused of wrongdoing and promptly disavowed while an unobserved villain carries out a greater plot behind the scenes. Tom Cruise returns as IMF agent Ethan Hunt with Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) returning from Mission: Impossible III and a new character to the series, Jane Carter (Paula Patton). The latter two agents break Hunt out of a Russian prison (because all great espionage films need Russian prisons) without so much as ruffling Cruise’s tufts of long hair resurrected from Mission: Impossible II. Taking the reins from a failed assignment by agent Trevor Hanaway (a surprise appearance by Josh Holloway) investigating a cryptic person of interest codenamed ‘Cobalt,’ Hunt, Dunn, and Carter infiltrate the Kremlin to make for some tense, claustrophobic infiltration and espionage sequences. 

Nevertheless, the IMF team eventually finds themselves at a loss when framed for a bombing of the Kremlin shortly after exfiltration, leading to a disavowal of IMF to the point where only Hunt’s team and a train car full of gadgets are all that is left. Of course, this scenario only serves to lend a greater hand in elevating the edge-of-your-seat danger and rapidity of chase scenes à la The Bourne Ultimatum as protagonists are often operating blindly and frantically, a setup that echoes Brian De Palma’s first Mission: Impossible film. Hunt’s team eventually recruits a reluctant William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), a mysterious IMF analyst who worked with the chief secretary (Tom Wilkinson) before the organization’s dissolution. Together, they unravel the work of Russian nuclear strategist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), apparently the true face of the alias ‘Cobalt.’ Clocking in at two hours and fifteen minutes, Ghost Protocol actually feels significantly speedier than expected because the sparse plot makes way for heaving energy and time-warping pacing. Action overflows with consistent chase sequences (Cruise seems to run from danger more and more with each film), brief yet viciously physical fight scenes, and globetrotting outings to exotic locales.

Tom Cruise, despite his controversial personal life and aging demeanor, stands out like no other in Ghost Protocol as the actor rather than the character, foregrounding his own personal traits over Ethan Hunt’s non-character disposition. Hunt has never really had any substantial, distinct characteristics/backstory of his own. Neither a tuxedoed, witty ladykiller like James Bond nor a troubled, pensive ghost like Jason Bourne, Cruise instead instills his own idiosyncrasies to the character to give primacy to his own top-bill actor status. Loquacious and self-assured at times, but also capable of displaying seemingly hyperbolic conviction and seriousness with steely eyes, Tom Cruise simply plays Tom Cruise, albeit with more running… from explosions. Cruise and Bird construct the character as pure energy, regularly displaying superhuman capacities from enduring great falls to continuous sprinting, all while the actor pushes fifty years old. When other, younger characters have their chance to participate in action sequences, Cruise only surpasses them once more, effortlessly running down sides of buildings (literally) and jumping out of moving cars while barely even getting a scratch. He’s simply the best, a larger-than-life figure whose entire bearing – movements, emotions, facial expressions, lines – derive from Cruise’s own iconic presence.

Apart from Cruise’s action work, director Brad Bird nearly attempts to instill within the character a level of emotional depth not seen since J.J. Abrams’s direction of Mission: Impossible III, a film that observed Ethan Hunt and fiancée Julia (Michelle Monaghan) battling against all odds apart from the typical “save the world” plotline. Abrams constructs more personal stories with a semblance of a beating heart, and Bird attempts to recapture that same emotional depth in Ghost Protocol but with less remarkable results, opting to intersperse Ethan’s background with Julia to, well, the background. As for Hunt’s present colleagues Jane Carter and Benji Dunn, they prove to be a more likable affair than M:I-III’s largely forgettable bunch. The delectable Paula Patton, an actress who resembles a cross between Alicia Keys and an older Rashida Jones, exerts command over her role as fierce yet alluring platonic team member far better than forgettable predecessors Maggie Q, Thandie Newton, etc. And the fact that there exists no forced love subplot between her character and any of Hunt’s team is a refreshing aspect of the movie, apart from Cruise pulling an “Inception Arthur” by stealing a kiss to distract enemies. Simon Pegg as the familiar Benji Dunn serves as the always pleasing comic relief because of his meta-recognition of the absurdity transpiring around him, a self-commentary of the film expressed through looks of defeated resignation, shock via mouth slightly agape, and the quick smile-to-serious expression change.

The introduction of Jeremy Renner to the series as William Brandt provides further actor awareness for his forthcoming 2012 roles in The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy. Ghost Protocol creates Brandt as an enigma from the very onset of his arrival, originally assigning him the role as bumbling IMF analyst but obviously harboring deeper secrets and invisible prowess beneath his public frame. By leaving these cryptic inquiries into the character as an overarching backdrop of the film, interest slowly mounts as Brandt proves himself as a capable, formidable character who goes toe-to-toe with Hunt himself. Nevertheless, the backstory behind the character is ultimately left frustratingly underused and dropped, concluding with a throwaway ending meant to bring emotions full circle but actually comes off as a cheap attempt at pathos. Renner’s own degradation from a secretive and detached character to another source of comic relief (albeit hilarious comic relief) is the film’s own unintended, mocking parody of itself as overblown blockbuster fare uninterested in investigating deeper into its characters. Nevertheless, it’s Bird’s own recognition of the film’s role as blockbuster fare that saves it from becoming excessively theatrical, and this adherence to the positive aspects of blockbuster standards essentially separates Ghost Protocol from other films that try too hard to reach plausibility and faux seriousness (see: Salt). 

The antagonists of the movie are competent enough but are fairly unremarkable, from Russian actor Vladimir Mashkov’s portrayal of operative Anatoly Sidirov hunting down Hunt’s team to strong-man Wistrom (Samuli Edelmann), Hendricks’ right-hand man. The exquisite Léa Seydoux as French assassin Sabine Moreau is far more attention grabbing, recalling old-school spy archetypes of lone assassins for hire who are at once ruthlessly implacable but also professional and shadowy. As for Michael Nyqvist, he channels his cold, slightly detached demeanor of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Mikael Blomkvist (the Swedish version) to the psychotic Russian nuclear strategist who advocates for war between America and Russia. Nevertheless, his scenes of villainy lack Philip Seymour Hoffman’s calmly focused, disconcerting treachery in M:I-III, instead ending up generic and disposable.

The exotic globetrotting presented in Ghost Protocol circuits around Moscow, Dubai, and Mumbai, spending much time in each glossy location rather than reporting to each point of interest only to sluggishly continue to the next. Scenes in Moscow culminate in a prison escape sequence that includes an ironic, contrapuntal use of Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” given the events unfolding on screen, as well as the team’s goofy infiltration of the Kremlin. And while the CGI special effects are questionable at times, specifically the Kremlin bombing during this stretch of film, Bird raises his action game exponentially when the team visits the steel and glass desert oasis of Dubai. Benefitting significantly from the IMAX camera, an extended sequence atop Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (not to be confused with Wiz Khalifa), the current record holder for tallest tower in the world, maintains a level of danger and vertigo because of the picture’s glorious widescreen lens and Robert Elswit’s (There Will Be Blood, The Town) near perfect cinematography. When Hunt initially peers down from over a hundred floors up, the heavily detailed IMAX picture makes the sense of danger palpably close. The nerve-wracking scale up the side of the Burj Khalifa and the eventual escape down initially suspends all disbelief, yet CGI is never discernible because Tom Cruise LITERALLY runs down the side of the building in order to maintain complete authenticity rather than resort to green screen parlor tricks.

The ace stunt and camera crew stage some of the most impressive action sequences during the Dubai chapter, most revolving around the film’s tower centerpiece. Regardless, an eventual foot and car pursuit through a sandstorm in the style of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 adds moments of further jeopardy and exhilaration before the film eventually makes its way to an outrageously affluent section of Mumbai, India, where million dollar Bugattis and Ferraris are mere props to the developing story. Renowned Indian actor Anil Kapoor plays a goofy Indian telecommunications playboy during this segment as he tries to woo an unenthusiastic Carter with his wealth and a hairstyle that surpasses Cruise’s own. Nevertheless, a subsequent car garage fight sequence recalls Quantum of Solace’s scaffold fight, a technical playground of shifting levels that visualize loud, physical violence and incessant struggle over nuclear launch codes contained inside, what else?, a briefcase.

At times, the globetrotting and flashy extravagance borders on James Bond maximalism, though Ghost Protocol always feels faux stylish, lacking the contemporary aesthetics that make these films so unforgettable: sophisticated, clean, composed. Instead, Bird’s movie unfortunately feels subpar in terms of visual style, taking cues from gritty action flicks and carrying an air of bright, popcorn blockbuster style rather than a classier, more refined look. The crypto spy jargon (“alpha rendezvous!”) accompanying the infiltration and action sequences is especially ridiculous, and the outdated Cold War nuclear conspiracy throwback all but counterbalances with Bird’s sharp direction and unyielding kineticism. Brad Bird recognizes the over-the-top preposterousness of the film, recycling every element to his advantage, including the ridiculous gadgets used throughout. A magnetic levitation device, adhesive gloves, giant illusion screens, portable mask fabricators are all overblown devices that simply escape practicality, instead selling the film as pure popcorn fantasy.

Nevertheless, there are numerous stabs at Bond sensibilities, from Hunt’s signature futuristic BMW supercar to the aforementioned Bond-like girls reinforcing the power of the series to have a future greatness. And while the product placement remains leagues more noticeable and excessive than Bond’s more tasteful approach (Aston Martins and Omega watches are arguably more elegant and in line with the character than BMWs and iPads), Ghost Protocol contains a visual flair and restless power buried beneath the blockbuster surface simply awaiting liberation. Bird’s movie isn’t even a return to form for the series simply because the franchise has never really been off-track given the varying directorial styles of each and every film. Rather, Ghost Protocol is simply the best interpretation of the series in recent memory, surpassing Brian De Palma’s original foggy crime thriller bravura, John Woo’s slow-mo, dove-flying action stunts, and J.J. Abrams’s small-screen sensibilities that combine the designs of Alias and 24. Each previous film exhibits surface signs of their respected filmmaker’s trademarks, but none ever fully display their own respective auteurial voice or authenticity. Only Bird apparently notices the larger-than-life, overstated fantasy of the franchise unlike anyone else, manipulating this quality to suit his own style. Following previous work in the realm of animation, specifically The Incredibles, Bird crafts a supercharged, unrestrained action picture with the very same sensibilities employed in his preceding titles. And unlike his predecessors, he succeeds because he identifies what makes Mission: Impossible so enjoyable to watch in the first place.

Retrospectively, the distinctly contemporary emphasis on realism found in films like Quantum of Solace and The Bourne Ultimatum feel too overly banal when used to such godly extent. Of course, that’s not saying that these films are in any way bad films, it simply means that the style looks to have finally jumped the shark. In the case of Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the director opts for unpolluted popcorn fun and overindulgence, using these very qualities to magnify the enormous, invigorated world to potentially pave the way for a new direction for the series. The film is cheesy and overblown, but it strives for excitement and genuine blockbuster entertainment that the others have failed to realize because past filmmakers have overlooked the fact that the world of Ethan Hunt and the IMF could never be real. Bird pulls off smart, mainstream filmmaking because he revels in cheesy, overblown action, finally coming to a different conclusion than his forerunners. It’s not called Mission: Impossible because the missions are so demanding out of the team; it’s called Mission: Impossible because these scenarios can only exist in the cinema.

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