Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: Spy Vs. Explosions

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Directed By: Brad Bird
Written By: Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Michael Nyqvist, Tom Wilkinson, Anil Kapoor, Lea Seydoux, and Josh Holloway
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit, Editor: Paul Hirsch, Production Designer: James D. Bissell, Original Music: Michael Giacchino
Rated: PG-13 for those explosions that always seem to follow Tom Cruise around.

            The Mission: Impossible series, which began as a television series but since 1996 has become an action vehicle for Tom Cruise, has always felt like a Rosarch test for its directors. When you see Mr. Cruise and giant explosions, what does it look like to you? For Brian De Palma, it was a film that piled on twist after twist, revealing itself as self-reflexive genre cinema. JJ Abrams put together kinetic action sequences with a devilish villain played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, which felt at times reminiscent of Lost. And the less said about John Woo’s disaster, the better. Now comes Brad Bird, the director of animated hits like Ratatouille, starting his live-action debut.

            Despite his previous work only including actors whom he can tweak through digital manipulation to every freckle (though one could argue most Hollywood flicks today do the same), Mr. Bird’s thematic work seems apt for the Mission: Impossible series. The Iron Giant played with the Cold War ideology often lying in the background of the series (it’s always the Russians!). And The Incredibles showed Mr. Bird’s love of spectacle and action, the more inventive the better. And thus, Mr. Bird takes and crafts Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol into his own movie, one that wants to wow you from beginning to end.

            Very little has remained continuous between the now four films, and the only character who has ever remained center is Mr. Cruise. When we open the film, super-spy Ethan Hunt (Mr. Cruise) is sitting in a Russian prison for mysterious reasons, but is soon broken out by his fellow spy team members, played by the sexy Paula Patton and comic relief Simon Pegg (very much a stand-in for Mr. Bird’s own inner nerd). It’s then off to the Kremlin to steal documents, but everything goes wrong with a nuclear-ambitioned mad man (Michael Nyqvist) causes a disaster. Soon enough, the secretary initiates the titular “Ghost Protocol” (oh dear!) and the entire team must stop the bomber while disavowed by the nation. Plus, a former mysterious aide, played by a pretty blank Jeremy Renner, joins the team as well.

            Audiences wanting anything substantial to chew on with Mission: Impossible probably checked out after the first film (may I recommend Pina this weekend if you’re looking for spectacle?), and Mr. Bird probably had little hand to do much in terms of revision. But when it comes to highflying action, Mr. Bird soars, often literally, into the air with his camera. Using both 35mm and IMAX 70mm (seeing the film in regular film just won’t cut it), Ghost Protocol delights itself in funky gadgetry, intense complications, and very big set pieces. The film’s climax comes during an almost forty-five minute sequence at the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. The sequence starts with Mr. Cruise scaling the building through vertigo inducing shots by Mr. Bird and DP Robert Elswit (while supported by multiple cables, seeing Mr. Cruise doing his own stunts is adds to the grip). It then switches to a Hitchcock-inspired doubling as the gang attempts to trade secrets with the bad guys, before ending with a foot then car chase through the streets of Dubai (while a sandstorm pounds the city, no doubt!).

            It’s a shame how great that sequence is (and how Mr. Bird makes IMAX more compelling than any 3D use this year), because the rest of Ghost Protocol can’t compare to it. The last thirty minutes lack anything resembling tension, though a high-tech parking garage makes for a fun final showdown. Whenever the script reaches for any type of character (We’re a team, guys! Let me tell you about my secret past!), I kept checking my watch to see when the entire thing is over (plus, a self-serving callback to Mr. Abram’s entry for the ending stood out as baffling). This is a shame because Mr. Bird has both a knack for giant spectacle (the effects in the film are ridiculous…and ridiculously fun) as well as injecting a lot of humor, while supported by Michael Giacchino's bombastic variations on the classic theme. Mr. Bird has a lot of great ideas of what to build in Mr. Cruise’s sandbox, but you almost wish he chose the sandbox in the first place. 

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