By Todd Gilchrist | The Playlist December 7, 2011 at 7:30AM
“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.
The first and second 'Mission: Impossible' films were conceived at a time when humanizing action heroes was either unwanted or unnecessary; the former’s tableau-like execution by Brian De Palma was critiqued for being too complicated, and the latter’s balletic visuals, courtesy of John Woo, felt like an overcompensation of style over substance. But again, both were built on real ideas, and had a unifying aesthetic to guide both their filmmakers and their audiences through the experience. For this writer’s money, the third is the most conceptually sophisticated, because it actually had the cojones to deconstruct spy mythology and to go, “What if all of that cool shit that Tom Cruise usually tried just plain didn’t work?” And if you had never seen “Alias,” J.J. Abrams’ style as both a storyteller and director was a relatively new thing.
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.
Consequently, the film is constructed as a series of sequences in which Cruise reads a description of something they all have to do together, observes how freaking impossible it’s going to be, and then tells everyone to get to business. Afterward, they recap their successes and failures, engage in a bit of emotional banter, and then repeat until a sufficient volume of stuff has been beaten up, damaged or otherwise destroyed that the filmmakers can call it a complete story. This isn’t meant to sound like a condemnation of the structure of 'Ghost Protocol,' but to highlight the repetition and unfortunate simple-mindedness of the set pieces. To the credit of writers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, they successfully tie all of them into the plot, and use them to drive it forward, but even given the use of that same structure – to terrifically entertaining effect - in the previous films, it seems unimaginative to purely preserve it for this fourth installment.
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.
Cruise’s commitment to both his character and the series as a whole remains the thing that keeps it viable, but he’s also a generous collaborator who surrounds himself with a formidable ensemble: Pegg’s natural irreverence protects the film from becoming too dire, while Patton’s conflicted professionalism gives it humanity, and Renner provides an unexpected emotional throughline, albeit one that more strongly reinforces Hunt than his own character. But without solid or identifiable obstacles for the team to overcome, save for reinforcing the surface-level realization “teamwork is really important, you guys,” Bird’s film doesn’t leave much of an impression, and possesses little lasting value, which is something that all of his films until now have both done and had in excessive quantities.
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]