December 20, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (12/20/2011)

Lettergrade: A-

This fourth Mission: Impossible movie probably won't win much acclaim for its screenplay, but director Brad Bird more than makes up for it with 3 or 4 of the most exciting action sequences I've seen in a movie in some time. Bird previously had a lot of critical (and financial) success with Pixar's The Incredibles in 2004 and Ratatouille in 2007. This is his first live-action picture, and the style from his animated movies surprisingly carries over really well. Although the camera work is mostly restrained and fairly traditional, really, the attention to detail and the complexity of how many sequences are staged and edited are masterful. Bird's old school obsession with luxuries like "coherent storytelling" and "motivation" help elevate this picture well above the previous two entries in the series, and perhaps make it a bit more satisfying than the original 1996 movie as well.

In this one, there's an international incident at the Kremlin that appears to have been the work of the Impossible Mission Force, and so the off-screen President Of The United States initiates "Ghost Protocol," which basically means that the entire IMF is completely shut down and disavowed. Rock-star agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) must team up with fellow disavowed agent Simon Pegg, returning from a smaller role in part 3, and newcomers Paula Patton (who, although fetching, always has a goofy look on her face even during scenes where she's supposed to be serious) and the mysterious agent Brandt, played by The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner (rumored to have been introduced at the behest of the studio in case Cruise proves to be too expensive, geriatric, or bat-shit crazy by the time Paramount gets around to making Mission: Impossible 5). Together, and without the usual support of the CIA, they must thwart the nuclear war aspirations of the guy who starred in the Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo movies, Michael Nyqvist, who isn't really allowed to speak in this movie much because they probably hired him before they realized his English isn't great. Also along for smaller roles are several international stars who are largely unknown to American audiences (including Anil Kapoor and Léa Seydoux, among others).

As usual with movies that I actually like, I don't want to get into the details of the plot much, but I will observe that despite a few show stopping scenes that were obviously produced on a large scale (such as the sequence where Cruise climbs the side of the Armani Hotel Dubai, as featured in the trailers, and the spectacular sandstorm chase from the middle of the movie), Bird and company get a lot of mileage out of staging relatively low production-value scenes that consist of people sneaking around in back rooms, and the minutiae of elaborate plans that need to come off without a hitch. It's these more muted scenes which also showcase the film's coolest gadgets, many of which seem to be modified Apple products. Although it strains credulity a bit to sit through a segment where Renner is wearing a tin foil suit and is magnetically held above some whirling blades as he tries to navigate to some kind of super computer, it seems to get at the kitschy heart of what the original Mission: Impossible TV series was all about in the first place.

The movie has a lot of scenes like that, actually, which are consistently really entertaining. If I have a complaint about the film, though, it's that the objective of each individual "tension/ heist" segment isn't always entirely clear. Maybe it doesn't need to be and I'm just over thinking it… We know that there's the threat of nuclear armageddon. We know that in this one scene, the target has a briefcase full or codes or something that will get the bad guys one step closer to launching all the missiles. Spy movies of eld didn't always tells us what was on the "microfilm" that everyone was trying to get, mostly because the specifics didn't actually matter, and maybe they don't here either. I think that explanations are probably buried in this movie somewhere, and astute viewers might be able to catch them all and analyze the logic on repeated viewings. Really, though, it's a movie about Tom Cruise hanging onto the side of the world's tallest building in IMAX, and it's a damn exciting one at that.

As I was saying, I've found the series to be an extremely mixed bag. I like the original movie directed by Brian DePalma in 1996, which paid heavy homage (as all of DePalma's movies do) to Hitchcock movies of the 50s and 60s... almost more than to the Mission: Impossible source material itself. Not only were there great action sequences, but very unusual kinds of action sequences that made clever use of sound and point of view, including that wonderful black vault sequence in the middle of the movie where Cruise breaks into the CIA headquarters in Virginia, and hangs from cables while attempting to get the CIA NOC list. There was very little gun play in the movie - maybe 3 or 4 shots fired total - and although what was happening wasn't entirely clear, the picture was by and large a lot of fun.

2000's Mission: Impossible 2, directed by John Woo in self-parody mode, was the complete opposite of everything that the first movie was. Instead of using elaborate team work to pull off some crazy act of espionage, a hallmark of the series, Cruise's Ethan Hunt was now an extreme-sports obsessed one-man wrecking machine, who dodged showers of bullets with the greatest of ease and who did shit like jumping out of buildings without a parachute without thinking much about it. If part 1 was all about elegant subtlety (and I think it was… at least as much as an action movie can be), part 2 was about being as loud and as garish as possible.

Lost and Alias creator/producer Jim Abrahams directed M:I III in 2006. The series got back to basics a bit (in that Ethan Hunt seemed to actually resemble the character from the first film again, albeit slightly), but I think that Abrams, in his big screen directorial debut, kinda made the mistake of throwing waaaaaaaaaaaay too much at the audience in order to try to prove that he could handle a big action movie. I remember seeing it with my wife not long after we started dating, and although I recall enjoying it on some level, my primary memory is that the film is utterly and unnecessarily exhausting… there were probably 10 big action scenes in the movie, and very little form to any of them, not like DePalma's film had and as Bird's movie does. They're in a factory, and then they're ambushed, and the factory's about to explode, so they escape on a helicopter, but then they're being chased by another helicopter, so they blow it up! But then there's been a bomb implanted in one of the agent's heart and that's about to blow up now too… The action sort of felt like it was dictated by a seven year old who was jacked up on Jolt Cola. And I don't even remember many specifics about what the movie was about. I remember that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was the slimy villain, and that Laura and I cracked up at the trailers because the voice he was putting on made him sound a lot like the character he played in Happiness. I remember that the MacGuffin had something to do with Red Rabbit, but I have no idea what that was, other than the usual doomsday stuff. And I remember that horrible Kanye West song that played over the end credits. Wow, that was shitty.

Abrams and much of his exceedingly metrosexual team stayed on to coproduce Mission: Impossible 4, but they surprisingly picked a director who was 10-15 years older than they are to make it, and who had never worked in live-action before. Bird brought back some key creative personnel who had been absent from the series since part 1 (VFX supervisor John Knoll and master editor Paul Hirsch among them), and made a movie that's surprisingly better than the ones that came before it.

1 comment:

  1. This movie was loads of fun...full of action and cool gadgets..lots of plot twists. great visuals (unless you have a fear of heights).I enjoyed the actors and little bit of humor thrown into the story. We did not see it in IMAX but I wish we had, think it would have been great and would recommend you try to see it in IMAX.