Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol Review
Accept this mission.
Months before the release of the last Mission: Impossible movie back in 2006, Hollywood’s biggest star took his biggest jump – off Oprah Winfrey’s couch. It looked like it would seal his fate, breaking up a 14-year relationship with backing studios Paramount Pictures as a result. It also looked like it would end the Mission: Impossible series – or at least see it fall into the hands of somebody else. Brad Pitt’s name was being vaguely touted (the closest that he’d come to spy action thriller was perhaps Mr & Mrs Smith); and then the genuine news titbits started to come out: the title of ‘Ghost Protocol’, as well the casting of Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner. Was he the replacement lead, taking over the mantle from Cruise? Was the title indicating something of a splinter Mission: Impossible faction, a spin-off from the main franchise?
Well you can rest assured, this is still – just about – Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible.
Just prior to seeing this movie at the IMAX, I had the opportunity to revisit the first three instalments and offer up a retrospective look at each one of them: from Brian De Palma’s double-crossingly sneaky first instalment to John Woo’s slo-mo gun-fu second chapter, each successive film had a very different flavour. When J.J. Abrams took charge of the third, he brought out both more genuine comedy in the script and also more genuine brutality, yet somehow blended them together with action, thrills and characters you actually cared about, to give us one of the better entries, and one of the closest in spirit to the original classic TV series upon which the film franchise is founded. Returning as Executive Producer to help Cruise oversee the fourth film, Abrams passed the director’s mantle to the second first-time-feature director that the series has seen, Brad ‘The Incredibles’ Bird, whose only experience, thus far, was doing animated movies. With The Incredibles, though, Bird had no limitations but those of his own imagination, and what better live action franchise to say that about than the Mission: Impossible series – no limitations.
With an IMF agent down, and a set of nuclear launch codes in the wind, a team is dispatched to Russia to retrieve a key player who is currently incarcerated in a Moscow prison – Ethan Hunt. Hunt’s new mission is to take charge of this team and track down a nuclear terrorist known as ‘Cobalt’, but, after their first attempt goes awry, and they are outwitted by Cobalt, we find the entire IMF disavowed, as the US President initiates ‘Ghost Protocol’, and cuts all ties with his clandestine operatives. Pursued by Soviet intelligence services, Hunt’s new team must stay off the radar and do whatever it takes to stop Cobalt from igniting mutually assured nuclear destruction by launching a missile at the US and starting off a nuclear war.
Ghost Protocol kicks off with a stunning Prague sequence which sets the tone for the rest of the movie – superb stunts and lots of twists and double-crosses which see missions go wrong and the team consistently forced to improvise.
Although there’s a fair amount of evidence, right from this opening shot, which supports the notion that the best way to see this movie is in all its IMAX glory – with more than half an hour of the movie’s runtime shot in IMAX (more than in The Dark Knight), it is hard to argue that watching it in a constant cropped aspect ratio of 2.4:1 would be anywhere near as impressive – the end result, as can be seen here, is still one hell of a spectacle. From the brief Kremlin bombing moment to the scene-setting helicopter pass over the world’s new tallest building – the Burj Khalifa in Dubai; from the subsequent scaling of this 160+ floor, 2700+ ft tall skyscraper to the near-blind sandstorm chase sequence (not to mention the bone-crunching, car-crashing finale) – the stunts are stunning, invoking almost as much vertigo during the would-be IMAX moments throughout the movie.
It really shouldn’t take too much persuasion to get you to give this movie a shot. But if you need your arm twisted...
Originally slated for a May 2011 release (as with all of the previous films in the franchise), Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was also planned to be the only movie in the series which would feature a returning director. That’s right, the third instalment’s J.J. Abrams, who in the intervening years proved that Paramount had certainly backed the right horse with his stunning Star Trek reinvention, spent a couple of years working on this movie, trying to iron out the script with the same writers that used to work on his old Alias TV series, and with a target release date of May this year. Unfortunately script rewrites and delays pushed Abrams out of the picture, as he was forced to move on to his work on Super 8, maintaining production control over the piece – alongside Cruise – but handing over directorial duties to Brad Bird. Personally, I think it worked extremely well: Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III was a very good chapter in the franchise, but it was distinctly Alias in style, and Bird undoubtedly brings something different to the table, as Cruise has always wanted for each successive part in his series.
Insisting that IMAX is the last vestige of true cinema ‘spectacle’, and opting for that over the – in his opinion – gimmicky use of 3D, he wanted to literally make this the biggest instalment in the series. And, for the most part, it works extremely well. Not only are the stunts more spectacular, but the premise is broader-reaching, and arguably more globally significant than we’d come across before – nuclear terrorists, the IMF disavowed and hunted, and the US and Russia on the brink of nuclear war; it doesn’t get much bigger than this. As one character semi-jokingly quips: it can’t... can it?
Bird throws us into a slightly futuristic world of advanced, cutting-edge gadgets, concept cars and stunning new architecture, whilst also keeping the film just close enough to reality for suspension of disbelief to still be a viable option, should you choose to accept it. He also brings us plenty of older, classic architectural settings, innovative improvisational nods and thinking-on-your-feet tactics, all designed to remind you that, no matter how much state-of-the-art technology you have at your disposal, nothing is more important than the ability to adapt to any situation.
To this end we meet the new team, similarly comprised of fresh blood and veteran experience, continuing the aforementioned theme of old vs. new. Brit comic actor Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Paul) returns in his role from Mission: Impossible III, still the comedy element, and still little more than a glorified hacker, despite his promotion to both field work and carrying a gun, but it’s nice to see him settle into a marginally meatier role; newcomer Paula Patton (Precious, Deja Vu) plays the team’s previous mission leader, back when the operation saw the loss of an IMF agent in the field – a personal loss for her, and one which gives her character something of a revenge angle, and thus also a little more depth than your usual ‘new team additions’; and, playing an IMF analyst reluctantly involved with the group, Jeremy Renner joins the proceedings as Tom Cruise’s rumoured somewhere-down-the-line replacement.
I like Renner, he was great in Hurt Locker, but I’m not sure about whether or not he ultimately works for the series; he’s certainly no Tom Cruise, and here his newbie(-ish) character, whilst proving – over the course of the movie – that he is a solid new member of the team, never once shows he has the chops to take over the franchise. In fact he is probably the one that I would least miss if they replaced him for the next entry, despite the nice touches with his character’s back-story (which ties in with the story arc of Ethan’s personal life and what’s happened to it since the last film). Indeed Pegg and Patton stand out as better team members, the latter even exhibiting a bit of genuinely palpable on-screen chemistry with Cruise, which makes you wonder where they will go with these characters further down the line.
Still, Renner is reasonably competent in the action department and rounds out what Abrams originally set out to do with the third instalment and – through the medium of Brad Bird – has managed to finally accomplish with Ghost Protocol: they’ve put the classic original TV series team back into the Mission: Impossible franchise. The original series, as recurring series actor Martin Landau was first to point out when he was disappointed with the initial – solo-driven – direction the films went in, was all about confidence tricks and sleight of hand: getting in and out without anybody knowing you were ever there in the first place. Although Tom Cruise’s character of Ethan Hunt has employed many of these tactics either by himself, or with whatever IMF team-of-the-month he happens to be running, Hunt has effectively become something of a one-many Army; a more directly comparable superspy hero alongside the likes of Bond and Bourne.
Ghost Protocol changes all of that quite dramatically. Disavowed, the misfit team of – effectively – rogue IMF agents are, by the end of it all, a great representation of the classic original TV series team: the electronics and surveillance expert, the tough guy backup, the seductive femme fatale and the point man – usually a master of disguise who has to insinuate himself into tricky situations. Here the four main cast members are given their fairly distinctive roles, with Hunt himself often switching between point-man and mission control. Whatever else people may criticise about the movie, it’s good to finally have the team back together, ever since Brian De Palma blew them apart in the first act of the Mission: Impossible franchise’s debut.
But what of Cruise? Are we saying that this series is no longer Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible? Well, it’s hard to say with any degree of certainty. I know they were grooming Jeremy Renner to be his replacement, but I still think that’s a way off – if anything, this instalment goes out of its way to show that the old methods still have their advantage over the new ones; that Ethan Hunt’s experience and ability to improvise and adapt still makes him a better agent than his counterparts who have all the gadgets in the world. Repeatedly Hunt makes it clear that he is playing a hunch, and frequently he is forced to improvise when the missions – as they often do in this instalment – go wrong. And perhaps that’s an interesting aspect of the character than has never really been developed over the last two instalments (credit to De Palma for introducing it in the first place), and something that gives him the edge over anybody, however well trained, who would ever seek to replace him.
Unfortunately, a great strength of the previous instalments has been a clearly defined, tough antagonist – perhaps most notably in Mission: Impossible III, where Phillip Seymour Hoffman excelled as an opponent who Hunt almost could not handle – and Ghost Protocol misfires in one small department: casting, or rather, miscasting.
The nuclear terrorist, Cobalt, who seeks to ignite a new global nuclear war, is played by the lead actor from the original Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Michael Nyqvist, and whilst he was excellent across the entire Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, he does not quite convince here, as basically the evil version of Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. It’s not quite his age, nor his physique – although both of those feel like factors when he’s going head-to-head, or car-to-car, against Cruise’s Hunt – but actually mostly his terrible faux stiff-upper-lip Brit accent. His character is infinitely more authentic when speaking in Swedish – as he does for one small scene – and it just seems odd when he opens his mouth and speaks English, as if he had learned the dialogue parrot-fashion.
There are also a number of supporting roles – both for bad guys, and for grey-area individuals – and these also rarely hit the mark: Lost’s Josh Holloway looks like a shampoo commercial actor who is auditioning for a part in a spoof Mission: Impossible film series; Bollywood megastar Anil Kapoor (great in 24 and Slumdog Millionaire) camps it up to the extreme – and makes a total fool out of himself; Ving Rhames looks like a wreck, in an utterly pointless cameo; and Tom Wilkinson (Batman Begins) is woefully underused, although, as ever, he makes the most of even just a few lines. French actress Lea Seydoux (Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood) has a more interesting role, until it veers into cliché territory, and then is ended even before it got started (and, yes, she does look permanently sad all the time), and Russian actor Vladimir Mashkov (Behind Enemy Lines) – obviously hired because of his Alias connections – has his moments but is, ultimately, given the rough end of the stick as his character is always forced to play catch-up to the on-screen events.
Still, as a whole, the elements do generally fit into place, and there is enough of a threat, not just from the nuclear storyline but also from Cobalt himself, who is almost as good at adapting and improvising as Cruise’s Hunt.
And this is still Tom Cruise’s baby, just. He does look older, a far cry from the almost crew-cut youth of 1996’s debut; indeed he finally looks like he should be winding down the action superstar aspect of his career. Although, that said, he’s clearly far from past it yet, and it’s not like he doesn’t have some decent acting chops to take over when he can no longer zip-line bare-chested from a building to a truck. I still think his best Mission: Impossible acting came during the pre-credits sequence of the third instalment, when he was faced with a terrorist holding a gun to his wife’s head, but Ghost Protocol does well to present a tired, somewhat resigned-to-his-fate Ethan Hunt, whose future looks very different from what it was at the end of the last movie, and who slowly has to come to terms with the fact that he is probably going to die, alone, doing what he does best: missions.
Of course the one thing that simply nobody could ever pull off quite like Tom Cruise is the stunts, an aspect of the film reminiscent of old Bond, back when each new feature would have a new grand stunt in it. Yes, we might hear about it all the time – Cruise doing his own stunts – and see plenty of behind the scenes shots in the press, showing the wires and cables and security equipment etc. etc. But the reality is that it is still pretty damn impressive that a Hollywood megastar – the Hollywood megastar – would even think about doing these kinds of stunts himself. Climbing out of a building 130 flours up must be one hell of a thing, even if you’ve got lots of safety cables. Remember when Jackie Chan used to be famous for doing all of his own stunts? Well, this reminds me of those kind of exploits, with Cruise – himself – clambering around on the outside of the world’s tallest building. Vertigo-inducing indeed, there are several sweep-over-and-look-down shots which truly give you that disconcerting sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach; IMAX has rarely been used to such stunning effect: it’s got the immersive qualities of 3D (albeit in a different way), only without having to wear the glasses – and even in the cropped 2.4:1 wide format it still looks pretty damn spectacular.
The entire Dubai middle-act sequence is impressive in terms of stunts, story (the dual confidence-trick operation) and climax. Indeed, although the more CG-dominated effects sequences are slightly more hit and miss – the Russian rumble is not as good as the Dubai sandstorm chase, and the car factory fight has twinges of Minority Report and I, Robot (and even the Star Wars Prequels) about its fighting-amidst-high-technology chaos, which almost reduce the impact of its more brutal moments – there’s always a nice Cruise-driven old-school stunt to surprise you. Even the little, semi-humorous scene where he’s trapped on a ledge and forced to improvise is a great example of both the benefits of authentic stunts and of the writers incorporating Cruise’s age into the proceedings. After all, as much as I love his stunt-work, it can’t go on forever – and perhaps the slips, drops, bangs and breaks that he experiences in this chapter are the start of the end of his role as out-and-out action point-man, and the beginning of more of an overseeing position within the team (again, like the original TV series had with Peter Graves, who did actually have a fairly central role to play even as operational leader).
Brad Bird’s handling of the film is also generally very good, deviating from Abrams’s direction in everything but the closing epilogue (which ties in nicely with the third movie) and crafting his own flavour Mission: Impossible outing; one which, unsurprisingly, has a great deal of The Incredibles about it (even the score, by the same composer as Mission: Impossible III, is less Alias – apart from during the epilogue – and more Incredibles, but with plenty of classic original Mission: Impossible themes in it). Bird uses The Incredibles mould not just in terms of his grand, overwhelming stunts – no limits, remember – and his great gadgets (the display projectors and the gloves are excellent, even if the magnetic crawler sequence was a little lacklustre) but also in the underlying theme of uniting a team to overcome a tough enemy. He may not capture the fight sequences as well as Abrams – or Woo!! – but he masters the stunts, manages to inject quality comedy into what could have easily been a depressingly dark story, and provides what is certainly the most outright fun outing. And, as already noted, his is the chapter which rides closest to the original TV series in every respect.
Both he and Cruise (with, no doubt, Abrams still producing) have already expressed their interest in doing another one, and, given Cruise’s looming 50th birthday, perhaps we won’t have to wait another 6 years for the next instalment (assuming the director doesn’t drop out again!). In the meantime, Cruise has just started shooting his first Jack Reacher adaptation, based on Lee Child’s One Shot, which I’m already looking forward to seeing this Christmas. Yes, yes, I know the internet is abuzz with Reacher fans crying out that their beloved character will be ruined by such miscasting but it would appear that he’s got the writer’s approval and, furthermore, perhaps the Lee Childs / Jack Reacher franchise needs the kind of considerable production clout that the Cruise Machine has (after all, look what happened to the Tom Clancy / Jack Ryan franchise: even with three well-cast actors, it still sank because of a lack of support and a lack of continuity). If Cruise brings to the Reacher series the same level of consummate professionalism that he’s brought to the Mission: Impossible franchise for the past 15 years, then that’s me looking forward to another decade of his films.
In the meantime, enjoy what will no doubt not be the last Mission: Impossible entry. Most will probably class the movies in the rank of No. 1, 3, 4 and 2, but I think Ghost Protocol (perhaps even more so on a second viewing) actually pushes towards a joint-first place for 1, 3 and 4. With the first being quite a cold, intelligent twist-laden spy thriller, the second being a stylish actioner, and the third being more gritty and more personal, this fourth film benefits from not only being a team effort, but also being the most family-friendly old-school ‘event’ movie. It’s the fun film that Bond used to be (for better and worse), and – more than Bond, Bourne and even the previous Mission: Impossible outings – the kind of spectacle your whole family can enjoy. It was also the best Summer blockbuster of last year (even though it was released at Christmas!), bringing the much-loved series back into the spotlight and proving, once and for all, that Cruise still has the magic.