When you think about it, it’s pretty interesting what Tom Cruise has done as the producer of the films in the Mission: Impossible series. After all, a film franchise is essentially a brand, something that’s supposed that people are supposed to depend on being the same every time they come back for more, but instead Cruise has opted to bring on a new director and reinvent the franchise in every single installment. That’s not to say that every (or even any) of these reinventions has actually worked, the John Woo directed second film is widely seen as s dud and I’ve never been a fan of the J.J. Abrams directed third film (even though I’m probably in the minority on that), but it seems like an interesting and courageous way to drive a series just the same. Of course the best film in the series remains the slick original film which Brian De Palma managed to turn into a modern thrill ride while still grounding the proceedings with some degree of realistic spycraft. Now Cruise has made one of his most outlandish hiring choices yet by bringing in Brad Bird, a director who had previously only worked with animation up to this point, to helm the latest entry in the series: Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol.
This installment begins with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) imprisoned in a Russian jail for reasons we are not immediately privy to. After a fellow IMF agent is killed on a mission, the remaining members of Hunt’s team decide to break their former leader out of incarceration in order to hunt down the assassin. To do this the team breaks into the Kremlin in an attempt to find files related to the incident, but this proves to be a trap. It was a ploy by the assassin to steal a nuclear device, set off a large explosion in the building, and then frame Hunt and his team for the entire affair. This leaves Hunt disavowed by the government and on the run, left with no option other than to continue hunting the man responsible for all this, put an end to his scheme, and in doing so clear his name.
What I never liked about Mission: Impossible 3, in spite of a number of strong elements, was a certain snarkiness that seemed to pervade the whole film, an attitude that all too often plagues J.J. Abrams’ films including his 2009 Star Trek film, though it was mercifully absent from this year’s Super 8, possibly because his desire to recreate Steven Spielberg’s aesthetics forced him to maintain a certain reverence that he would have otherwise abandoned. Mission: Impossible 3 was the sort of film that would center its entire premise on an unexplained MacGuffin called “the rabbit’s foot,” almost as if to mock the very notion of making a straightforward spy movie. It reeked of a sort of hipster insincerity, as if it felt it needed to drown every moment in insincerity so as to avoid being mocked, which to me a cheat. I was looking forward to seeing the series move on from this, but then I saw the “Bad Robot” logo, realized that J.J. Abrams was still on board as a producer, and realized I was in for some trouble.
Though Cruise and company are clearly trying to set this installment up as a sort of reboot by calling it “Ghost Protocol” instead of “Mission: Impossible 4,” it actually maintains Mission: Impossible 3’s continuity to a much greater degree than other installments of the series have and to some extent it seems to be a continuation of that film’s vision. Fortunately the snark seems less aggressive this time and isn’t nearly as off-putting as it was in “M:I-3,” but it still maintains a rather light tone and lacks a certain seriousness that this series has given us in the past. Brad Bird proves himself to be a competent craftsman, but he lacks the auteurist stamp that (for better or worse) De Palma, Woo, and Abrams were able to bring to the table. If you didn’t know better you’d never know that this was the same person who gave us The Incredibles and Ratatouille.
Worst of all, Brad Bird clearly had no intention of bringing Pixar’s “story first” maxim to the table in his live action debut, in fact there really isn’t that much story here to speak of. Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol seems remarkable shameless about the fact that it was just three or four interesting set-pieces being strung together by a very thin and rather clichéd plot. The basic notion that Hunt and his team have to operate as renegades would seem to be a good way to keep things interesting, but it really doesn’t amount to all that much. The team still seems to have access to all the technology they want (which in this installment has gone from being merely fantastical to being outright science fiction), at least when it’s convenient for the plot, and we rarely get that much of a sense that they’re operating in any way that’s different from how they normally would. Sure, at one point Cruise is forced to mountaineer on the outside of a building because his assistant can’t hack into the building’s security any other way without access to the CIA’s servers, but somehow I suspect that they’d find some other reason to make him climb that building with or without the “renegade agents” angle. What’s more, the villain’s basic scheme of setting the Russians and Americans against each other in a nuclear war is as clichéd as it gets: we’ve seen the same lot in every movie from The Sum of All Fears to X-Men: First Class.
Part of the irony of all this is that the film tells a very dated story of nuclear tensions between The United States and Russia (a full twenty-two years after the end of the cold war) by staging action sequences in places like Dubai and Mumbai, both centers of 21st century “new money” prosperity. Of course the locations are arbitrary; the plot is loose enough that they could have set these scenes anywhere, so they’ve chosen places that are trendy right now. That’s not to say that these settings aren’t an asset, they are, and they give the film a level of production value that help form the movie into what it’s trying to be: a bigger than big blockbuster. In fact, production values are probably this film’s greatest asset and there are a number of pretty good action scenes that do make the film worth seeing. The film comes complete with a very well staged destruction of the Kremlin, a scene where Ethan climbs and then repels from a very tall glass building, and a car chase through a sandstorm. All of these scenes are better than what you’ll see in the average action movie, but none of them are truly transcendent. This series has yet to top the fight on top of a moving bullet-train or the elaborate CIA break-in from the original Mission: Impossible.
Objectively speaking, Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol is actually a better film than either Mission: Impossible 2 or Mission: Impossible 3. That is to say that it isn’t as flawed as either of those films and there are fewer specific complaints to be raised about it. And yet, I don’t know that I respect it as much as either of them. “M:I-2” and “M:I-3” both ultimately failed because they chose a direction to go, really went for it, and sort of got derailed along the way. Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol on the other hand more or less plays it safe and the results end up being very above average. It’s a film that is pretty fun while you’re watching it and will likely elicit hyperbolic responses shortly after leaving the theater, but how much of it will the audience remember about it two weeks later? Certainly the biggest action scenes, which probably comprise fifteen to twenty minutes of the film’s screen-time, but aside from that I’m willing to bet a lot of the movie will be forgotten.
*** out of Four