“Mission: Impossible” is that rarest of franchises, where it seems unnecessary, or even irrelevant, to compare one installment to another. Because each film was shepherded into existence by a different filmmaker, and in all cases by one branded an “auteur,” they all seem to exist independently, demonstrating strengths and weaknesses none of the others have. And “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” falls perfectly in line with its predecessors: helmed by Brad Bird, whose combination of brisk action and humanizing comedy made Pixar’s “The Incredibles” such a winner, the fourth film is its own entity, a bemusing but visceral thriller that ups the series’ stakes while staying true to its core concepts. But bereft of the unifying concept each of the previous films had – or depending on one’s opinion, that they lacked – 'Ghost Protocol' is a fun but mostly empty adventure story that operates with the rote predictability of a middling ‘90s James Bond movie rather than a benchmark-setting actioner or even seasonal “event movie.”
Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, a formidable but frequently-abused IMF agent who accepts an assignment to infiltrate no less than the Kremlin – that is, after his cohorts Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton) break him out of a maximum security prison where he’s been detained for a series of unsanctioned assassinations. Although he and Dunn secure entry into the Kremlin in typically high-tech fashion, they soon discover that they’ve been beat to their target, and their plan quite literally blows up in their faces, causing an international incident. In an attempt to stave off full-scale war, the U.S. shuts down IMF, although Hunt and his team are unofficially assigned the task of discovering who’s responsible for instigating a worldwide panic. Discovering that a fanatical politician named Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) may be the culprit, Hunt and company recruit an IMF analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and race into action, following Hendricks around the world to recover materials which they believe he wants to use to start a nuclear conflict that will decimate all of the world’s populations.
But while Brad Bird is already probably a better director than Abrams, even as he makes his first attempt at live-action filmmaking, 'Ghost Protocol' has nothing to unify its execution except the narrative theme of “teamwork,” and the stylistic choice of interjecting more conspicuous humor into heightened scenarios. The villain himself is almost a parody of a bad Bond adversary, maniacally single-minded in his determination to destroy the world, and his methodology – nuclear bombs that set off a chain reaction of retaliations between nations – ranks in the Top Five Most Frequently Attempted Evil Schemes In Action Movie History. In an early scene, one character reveals to another that a mysterious bad guy has “launch codes to Russian nukes,” and Michael Giacchino’s score settles down to let that soak in; but the real shock came later when it was discovered that this idea is what holds the entire crux of the plot together, and the film is not set (nor made) in a Cold War environment.
That said, Bird does a wonderful job of executing these action scenarios in ways that communicate energy and drama but never succumb to undue self-seriousness. The opening scene where Hunt breaks out of prison is marvel of storytelling economy, as Bird uses almost no dialogue to communicate what’s happening and why, but the audience is never at a loss for what’s happening or how they’re meant to feel about it. And later – and certainly augmented by Cruise’s own commitment/ fearlessness – his photography of Hunt scaling the outside glass of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa some hundred or more stories in the air is truly a breathtaking, palm-sweating spectacle to behold. In fact, the only problem with these sequences is that they’re a little too slight: in an earlier cut shown to reporters of the Burj Khalifa scene, there were a few more shots, or perhaps just longer ones, and the immediate impression one came away with was that this was going to be a defining, unique moment in action moviemaking. In the final theatrical version, the editing is much more aggressive, and as a result it doesn’t climax with the same sense of exhilaration it previously did, and resonates only superficially afterward.
But even if it isn’t compared to the others in terms of being better or worse, it’s no less susceptible to the over-under of good versus bad, where it falls somewhere in the net-positive range. (It does however seem to establish the inverse of a “Star Trek”-style precedent where the odd entries are good, and the even ones less so.) Ultimately, with so much talent behind and in front of the camera, and the continuing promise of a series authored by filmmakers with distinctive voices, 'Ghost Protocol' fails to provide thrills unique enough to truly celebrate, even if it still offers a “Mission: Impossible” that’s worthwhile for audiences to accept. [B]