Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
For his first foray into live action moviemaking, director Brad Bird has taken the "action" part of the equation quite seriously. Treating his task of directing the fourth mega-budgeted Mission: Impossible movie as though he has something to prove (and maybe he does), Bird furiously unfurls each awesomely audacious action sequence with breathless intensity. It's an exciting approach that quickly generates muscular momentum and powers the movie through its ramshackle narrative. The script is a standard series of peaks and valleys, with minor moments of character interaction and mostly enjoyable comic relief bridging the gap between brilliantly executed action sequences. It's a fair formula for a Mission: Impossible movie and Bird delivers the thrills with attractive aplomb.
Since this is the fourth flick in a fun movie series that isn't exactly known for thinking outside the box, the plot isn't too difficult to guess. IMF agent and series star Ethan Hunt (a still convincing Tom Cruise) works with his team of fellow agents to take down a bad guy. Again. Nothing too new there, except this movie does benefit from a plot twist that essentially leaves our heroes stranded and without any home base. This means there's no need to spend much time on mission briefings and there's plenty of time for Ethan and his team to globe-trot from action sequence to action sequence. Okay, so it's still not all that different than any previous entry in the series. But such a narrative-based differential is not needed, because Mission: Impossible movies have always been about the action-based style of each individual director. In that regard, Bird has put his personal touch on this franchise and it's not one that will likely fade away anytime soon.
One reason for that promised lasting impression is Bird's decision to follow in the footsteps of action directors Chris Nolan and Michael Bay by shooting a chunk of his movie with IMAX cameras. When a scene suddenly expands its visual canvas and the shot encompasses the full IMAX frame, it is a stunning sight that pulls us perilously close to the action. Bird wisely employs the IMAX cameras at opportune times to either showcase the immensity of a cityscape or to make an already massive action sequence even bigger. Tom Cruise running for his life, his face strained, his gait gloriously hyperactive, is a solid image on any screen, but seeing him perform such a frantic feat in full IMAX is appropriately pulse-pounding. He may as well just burst through the screen and mow us over, so larger than life is his (very) big screen determination.
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (a slightly more marquee-thieving title than the previous numerical entries) is crammed with delightful action sequences that involve everything from a raucous prison break to a car chase in a sandstorm to even yet another carefully orchestrated fall down a tight space (a staple of the franchise, having appeared in some form in each movie), but Bird's most impressive treat dwarfs every other moment in the entire movie. When Ethan and his team travel to Dubai in order to intercept villain Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), they know that their mission is to get Ethan into a server room located on one of the top floors of the Burj Khalifa, the almost inconceivably lofty tower that holds the distinction of being the tallest building in the world.
What Ethan and his crew don't know is that tough security has made it impossible for Ethan to access the room from inside the building. Along comes tech expert and lovable goofball Benji Dunne (Simon Pegg) with a questionable pair of gadget gloves that supposedly stick quite strongly to any surface. Ethan's revised mission becomes clear. He has to step outside, already a stomach-churning stack of stories above the ground, and then scale the metal and glass exterior as he closes in on the server room's window while increasing the harrowing space between him and the ground. What follows is a nerve-shredding sequence that easily ranks among the most gripping events in recent action cinema.
Taking full advantage of the IMAX frame throughout this sequence, Bird stages a stunt that is utterly overwhelming in its scope and scale. He turns the screws of tension so precisely that the sequence threatens to hurl us from our seats, so potent is the danger. The gloves prove to be less than perfect gadgets and Ethan isn't quite as accurate with his stunts as he once was, so the situation is punctuated by two considerable obstacles that allow Bird to further explore the visual dynamism of the sequence. It's ridiculously exciting to watch in all its enveloping glory, and just when it can't seemingly make any bolder an impression, Ethan's jaunt culminates with what may be the most adrenaline pumping skyscraper stunt since John McClane used a fire hose to aid his rooftop leap in Die Hard. It's all enough to turn even the hardiest of viewers into something of an acrophobe. The sticky floor of a movie theatre never felt so comforting.
This astonishing sequence is the movie's greatest achievement and its obvious peak (in more ways than one, clearly). There's still a lot of movie to go once the big stunt is delivered and Bird never quite manages to get the movie back to as satisfying a place. He still mounts some very impressive action scenes, but the big showstopper is in the flick's rear view mirror long before the ending. After smashing through a colossal chunk of the movie with only a few minutes between imaginative action sequences, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol takes a well-earned break in time for the finale. But the emotional stakes lack weight, despite a well-intentioned attempt by writers Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec to lend Ethan's arc some dramatic cornerstones, and so the movie reveals itself to be somewhat empty outside of the action sequences.
The villain is a total bore, a sentiment apparently shared even by the writers, who give Nyqvist only a handful of dull lines to deliver. Hendricks is more of a phantom than anything else, which may as well be a nod to the movie's subtitle, but is likely just a matter of wanting to focus more on Ethan and his team. Cruise's charm and death-defying dedication to stunts certainly provides an understandable distraction, but the lack of a worthy villain still weakens the movie. This is most evident in its conclusion, because Ethan's battles with inanimate objects (like the Dubai tower) are so much more interesting than his duels with humans. Hendricks is really just a dude drawing our heroes into the next action sequence, which usually features little more than a mere glimpse of the bad guy. By the time Ethan is given the opportunity to face him, there's nothing intimidating or interesting about the antagonistic character at all.
Despite this, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol marks a rather grand live-action debut for Bird, who overcomes the movie's shortcomings with a sensational celebration of stunt-driven sequences. Having previously made a mark in the action genre with his animated opus The Incredibles, Bird has proven that he can have exciting success in the realm of wires and sets and glitzy locations. What this Mission lacks in drama and memorable villainy, it more than makes up for with its likable cast (Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner add decent support as members of Cruise's team) and absolutely astounding action sequences. This isn't a movie about what is in Ethan's way, but rather a stunt spectacular about how Ethan deals with some really tough situations. It's a one-sided affair for the most part, but Bird prevents the movie from toppling due to lack of balance. He keeps his eyes on the Mission and delivers an extreme experience. And so it all comes back to the tower in Dubai. It's a sequence so unforgettable, so eerily epic, so boldly beautiful that it looks and feels damn near Impossible. Just don't look down. You might fall out of your seat and into the screen.