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Top of the world, ma! “Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol”

December 19, 2011

Strange as it is to say, the best action movie of the summer was released a week before Christmas. Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol is the kind of movie I’d more or less assumed Hollywood had forgotten how to make. It’s thrilling, exciting, fun, but most of all, it’s a professionally-made piece of entertainment, designed to give the audience their money’s worth, and not simply hoover up some respectable box-office numbers opening weekend, then make up the rest on DVD and overseas sales. I know, I know, the movie stars Tom Cruise. I still enjoyed it. Could be the sign of the Apocalypse, I suppose. Anyway…

Ghost Protocol ‘s plot makes the interesting and rewarding decision to take its characters out of their comfort zone almost immediately. After a bomb takes out a Soviet-sized chunk of the Kremlin and the Impossible Mission Force is implicated, the much-mentioned “Secretary” (of State? of Intelligence? of Missions that are Impossible? Well, whatever…) invokes “ghost protocol,” which disavows all MI teams and, effectively, erases the whole organization. This puts Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his teammates (Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, and an impressive Jeremy Renner) on the run without backup, support, or any equipment other than what they can scrounge from various safehouses along the way.

This is especially problematic, since not only has the Kremlin bombing been hung on them, but they’ve discovered that the whole thing was a diversion from a plot by an anarchist (Michael Nyqvist) to gain control of Russia’s nuclear stockpile and provoke a nuclear war. As with the other M:I movies, the plot isn’t complicated; it’s the mechanics that get all twisty-turny, and Ghost Protocol is no different. As straightforward as preventing a dude from starting nuclear war should be, it also entails numerous exchanges, drops, incursions, and infiltrations.

Of course, these are basically just excuses for some great action sequences, and, hey, whatever it takes to get Tom Cruise clinging to side of the Burj Khalifa hotel is fine by me. Here, praise must be given to director Brad Bird, who approaches this movie with the steady hand of a true professional. The Burj scene is the most obvious example of this, as it’s simply the most breathtaking piece of cinema I’ve seen in a very long time. The past fifteen years or so has seen the wonder of great stunts smothered with the great pillow that is CGI, so it’s refreshing to once again be blown away by something put onscreen (kudos to Bird, who refused to film it in 3D, because he didn’t want to sacrifice brightness or vividness).

The movie never tops that scene, but it doesn’t plummet, either. A chase through a sandstorm is a nice twist on the standard action sequence, and the action climax through an automated vertical parking structure has a great steeple-chase quality that harkens back to the Club Obi-Wan scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Bird handles his actors well, too, and seems to recognize that he has a huge human-sized hole in the middle of the movie. The MI movies have always been solid performers, but never beloved or iconic, and much of that is due to Cruise’s inherent soullessness. He’s a great marquee idol, but has no warmth or humanity. He’s an action figure, not a character. Realizing this, Bird pitches to the team Ethan Hunt has been marooned with, and finds a canny pinch-hitter in Jeremy Renner, who is sort of the anti-Cruise. In all of his roles, Renner makes a humanistic connection with the audience, and his William Brandt provides the film with the hero it needs. Supported by Pegg as the reliable comic relief, and Patton as the requisite tough-chick, this is the only M:I movie that seems to remember that the original TV show was about a team and not just one narcissistic dude.

Additionally, the movie just looks great. It plunges into the exoticism of its foreign locales (Dubai, Budapest, Mumbai), and sends its action through their teeming streets. The result is a great travelogue of the type that used to characterize the James Bond franchise (something it has, unfortunately, overlooked since at least Octopussy).

If the movie falls down, its in its casting of Nyqvist as Cobolt, the aforementioned nuclear terrorist. I know Nyqvist is the flavor of the month, having appeared in the Swedish versions of the Stieg Larsson adaptations. Problem is, he’s boring as hell. Maybe he’s more interesting in Swedish, but he’s about as bland a plate of noodles as you can possibly pour into a suit, and his lack of menace robs the film of a great villain, which it so richly deserved.

Anyway, that’s about all the gushing I can do about Ghost Protocol without giving away the best bits. All I can say is go see it, and when you do, see it on an IMAX screen. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.

ALSO:

* Tom Cruise is turning 50 this year, and he’s finally beginning to look it. It’s a tad disconcerting, especially when he sucks in his gut manically during his one shirtless scene. Something tells me Tom isn’t going gracefully into middle age.

* This movie serves as an effective ad for BMW and Apple products. The BMW i8 is featured prominently, and all the MI operatives use Apple products. That last one is really good for a giggle, when you think of how insecure Apple devices are.

* Paula Patton is always a welcome presence, but she’s no Maggie Q (oh Maggie…we could have been so good together, you and I…)

* Nice to see better guns than in the last one. MI operatives mostly use Sig P226Rs, and even the excellent (though sadly out-of-production) Heckler & Koch P7 makes an appearance.

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