Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Mission: Impossible is kind of a strange series.  The first film, directed fifteen years ago by Brian "subtlety's my middle name" De Palma, was an entertaining but logically dubious special effects feature with quadruple crosses galore.  The second film, directed by John "I rape subtlety for breakfast" Woo, was a ridiculously over-the-top and incredibly stupid tribute to slow motion effects; it also featured a theme song by Limp Bizkit.  Ugh.  The third film, directed by J.J. "Blue F'n Lights" Abrams, went back to basics, but narrowed the scope down so far that it felt more like an awesome TV show than a blockbuster movie.  Honestly, I didn't have high hopes for Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, the fourth entry in the franchise.  It's not that I haven't enjoyed the other movies in the series--- they are entertaining for what they are --- but experience warns against the probability of a fourth movie in a franchise being good.  There are a few facts about Ghost Protocol that indicate that it may fare better than, say, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  First of all, this is the first live-action feature film directed by Brad Bird, who wrote and directed one of my favorite films of the past decade, The Incredibles.  Second, despite being a blockbuster, this was not filmed in 3D, but in IMAX; I may be petty, but 3D still feels like a gimmick in most films and, as Christopher Nolan has proved, IMAX can make some awesome special effects scenes breathtaking.  Finally, Ghost Protocol makes sure to keep the heroes from donning the ridiculously perfect Mission: Impossible masks that have plagued the series so far.  But is that enough to make this fourth volume worth watching?
Look!  An actual disguise!  Times have changed since 2000.

The plots of Mission: Impossible movies can be nosebleed-inducing if examined in too much detail, so I'll try to keep this relatively simple.  A bad guy, Kurt Hendricks, (the Swedish Millennium Trilogy's hero, Michael Nyqvist) wants to start a nuclear war.  That's bad.  Worse, he has framed the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) for an international catastrophe, so the entire organization and its agents have been officially disbanded and disavowed.  Specifically, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and friends have been framed for said international catastrophe, so they top the international wanted list.  Of course, they are the only ones who realize that Hendricks is planning to ruin the world, so they need to stop him.  They are all alone, without their usual bag 'o' tricks to help them and without international government support for their actions.  But that's why it's called an impossible mission, right?

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol was never designed to be an acting Goliath, but it's not half bad.  While it certainly won't net Tom Cruise the Oscar he obviously desires so desperately, I thought he was perfectly fine in this movie.  His character is clever and pretty bad-ass, without much angst or annoying principles to get in the way.  Simon Pegg returns for a second film, and he once again provides comic relief as the nervous tech guy.  I like Pegg, but I wish he would try something a little different in his next big budget movie.  I wasn't too impressed by Paula Patton, though; she had a sizable role and had the opportunity to be sexy, conflicted, and awesome, but was missing something --- depth, for starters --- to make her character work.
A lot was made of Jeremy Renner being added to the cast of Ghost Protocol,  with rumors suggesting him as a possible heir to headline the franchise when Cruise is finished.  If so, this isn't the movie that will make that happen.  Renner is perfectly fine, but he doesn't steal any scenes and just hints at his character's potential --- he's supposedly an Ethan Hunt-level bad-ass with an analyst's mind --- instead of doing anything particularly awesome.
I said "awesome," not "a clear homage to M:I I"
Lost alumni Josh Hamilton (who I barely recognized without his signature long locks) makes a brief appearance as a good guy, but he doesn't get a chance to do much.  The good guys also had some brief appearances from Ving Rhames, Michelle Monaghan, and Tom Wilkinson; of the three, Wilkinson had the most to work with and was the most fun to watch, if only because his character defied the expectations of a bureaucrat in a Mission: Impossible movie.  As for the baddies, Anil Kapoor was fairly entertaining as a bumbling sex fiend; I will admit that I found Kapoor especially fun to watch because his hair and beard reminded me of a friend who works for NBCLéa Seydoux got to look disinterested and sexy as an assassin, but how hard is that if you're already bored and French?  As for the main villain, Michael Nyqvist was given surprisingly little to say or do.  Sure, he has a crazy scheme, but he doesn't talk much and --- aside from his final fight scene --- doesn't do much in the film.  I'm not slighting the man, even though he looks ready for a nap, despite having a nuclear holocaust on its way any minute.

In all fairness, Nyqvist was never meant to be the draw for this film.  Mission: Impossible has never been about the villains, so much as it has been about having high stakes and fantastically elaborate stealth and action missions to pull off something even more ludicrously difficult.
That's what I'm talking about!
So, how are the ridiculous action and stealth sequences?  Pretty well done.  As usual, Tom Cruise is the centerpiece for most of these scenes, and he showcases why he is such a big damn action star.  It doesn't matter how ridiculous the premise behind a scene is, Cruise commits to making the action as bad-ass as possible.  And it usually works.
Even Cruise being chased by sand turns out to be decently cool
It would be hard to argue that the action in Ghost Protocol is anything but top notch, and I also enjoyed the film's sneaky moments, too.  The combination of unusual set pieces and exotic locales really helped keep this entry in the series from being boring.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is the first live-action directorial effort from Brad Bird.  He did a pretty good job.  The pacing of the film was fantastic, the action sequences were very well done, and the story wasn't too convoluted.  Heck, even the scenes that looked stupid in the movie trailer turned out to be pretty cool in the feature film.
Case in point
There aren't any impressive acting performances in the movie, but nobody was distractingly bad, either. 

As fun as Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is, it's not quite a complete victory lap.  I understand that Ethan Hunt is the main character in the series, but it is getting a little old, watching him do all the ridiculously hard stuff while his team is given fairly remedial tasks.  The action in this film maybe nonstop, but I would have liked to have been surprised by a truly awesome action sequence that showcased another character.  I was happy to find that this film's plot didn't rely too heavily on the earlier movies, but the mystery behind Ethan Hunt wasn't as fascinating as the script had hoped.  All in all, this is a fast and fun action movie, but it is missing that special something --- a fantastic villain, a more charismatic hero, an iconic plot twist, etc. --- to make it truly great.  Still, I would argue that this is in a close race for the best entry in the Mission: Impossible series.

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