The Dizzying Holiday Miracle
There's no shortage of Internet speculation as to why so many people have stopped going to the movies. High ticket prices, rude patrons, and the diminishing returns of franchises, comic-book adaptations, and over-long CGI spectacles that can be viewed at home in three months' time for a fraction of the price have, in large part, kept people out of the multiplexes. Today, I'm happy to report that you have a reason to get your ass to the theatre and pay the big-big-big-screen upcharge: His name is Brad Bird, and he directed Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
The film won't hit wide release until Wednesday, but that doesn't matter. It's showing in IMAX now, and if you have an IMAX-enabled theatre in your area (or even a LIE-MAX*), you owe it to yourself not to settle. On top of the fact that Robert Elswit's cinematography is like a high-def travelogue with explosions, you won't fully grasp the impressiveness of Tom Cruise's well-publicized adventures on the outer walls of Dubai's Burj Khalifa skyscraper unless you see it the way it was meant to be seen. In case you hadn't heard, Cruise did his own stunts for this sequence; given the building's mirrored surface and lack of evident filmmaking equipment in the shots, I can't imagine there was a lot in the way of safety nets available.
But one doesn't go to a theatre to watch ten minutes of a movie (discounting, of course the yahoos who only wanted to see this film for the eight-minute Dark Knight Rises prequel playing in front of it). Fortunately, Ghost Protocol is a fun, inventive action movie from end to end, with a grade-school-simple plot that goes humorously awry at nearly every turn.
Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, the suave, globe-trotting head spy of the United States' Impossible Mission Force (IMF). The film opens with his being broken out of a a Russian prison by former-technician-turned-field-agent, Benji (Simon Pegg), and an agent new to the series, Jane (Paula Patton). Aided by bombs and security-override equipment, Hunt--along with a contact he'd made on the inside--fights his way to freedom through a riot.
On the outside, he learns that a former Russian official named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) plans to purchase launch codes for a stolen nuclear missile. In a matter of hours, the IMF team breaks into the Kremlin to steal the codes, only to find that they've been shadowed by the villain's agents--who blow up the Kremlin to cover their tracks. Russian Intelligence officer Sidorov (Vladimir Mashkov) finds the reversible jacket that Hunt had used to pose as a general and uses it to pin the bombing on the U.S.
Following the film's third or fourth narrow escape, Hunt finds himself in a van with the IMF Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) and an analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner). They inform him of the political fallout, namely that the IMF has been liquidated and Hunt's skeleton crew are on their own. The Secretary, believing Hunt was set up, gives him directions to a safe house (actually a safe train car) before being shot through the head during an assault on the van.
Much of this can be seen in Ghost Protocol's trailer, so please don't think I've spoiled anything. Without giving more away, I'll say that the rest of the film involves Hunt, Benji, Jane, and Brandt chasing down Hendricks' associates without the help of the IMF resources they'd always taken for granted. For instance the reason Hunt has to scale the outside of Burj Khalifa is because he can't call a technician at headquarters to remotely disable key fire walls; he has to climb several storeys up and over, and cut through glass.** In fact, the film's main villain isn't the nihilistic Russian, it's absentee Tech Support. Though Hunt and company still have a lot to work with, they must rely on relatively low-tech means of tracking their prey (i.e. good, old-fashioned detective work and cunning).
Unlike most mega-budget actioners, this film offers the perfect combination of direction, writing, and performance. This is the role Tom Cruise was born to play. It allows him to be serious without tiptoeing into melodrama, and funny in reaction to the ridiculousness of his situations and/or bickering crew. As crews go, this is the first time in the Mission Impossible series where everyone gels. Pegg, Patton, and Renner have terrific chemistry; they feel like the world's smartest misfit eighth-graders, with Cruise as the ultra-cool kid with a driver's license. That's not to say that Cruise steals the movie; Ghost Protocol is very much an ensemble piece where everyone gets a moment to shine--but not in a way that screams out, "This is (INSERT NAME HERE)'s Moment to Shine!".***
When I first heard that Brad Bird had been tapped to helm this film, I became worried. The award-winning animation director has made only one film that I love, The Iron Giant, and two that I despise, The Incredibles and Ratatouille.
Yep, that last line deserves a paragraph break. Read it again, and then decide if you still care about what I think of Ghost Protocol.
Still with me? Good. Please understand that my problems with those films are mostly centered on the writing, and not the directing or medium-redefining leaps that Pixar made in rendering and animation. I was bored to tears by the respective superhero clichés and Tom and Jerry shenanigans, but I still appreciate both films as art--art that I may look at again, but not for a long, long time.
Bird's background in cartoons serves him very well in his live-action debut. His eye for staging action and instructing his performers on how best to exaggerate their physicality for maximum comedic/dramatic effect is...um...incredible. And I can't be sure if this was in the screenplay, but the Kremlin hallway sequence feels like a high-tech tribute to a Bugs Bunny gag. And I absolutely loved it.
The picture's crown jewel, of course, is the Dubai scene. Bird and Elswit provide a perfect sense of scale and danger here, both in the shooting and in the tech mishaps that befall Hunt on the mini-mission. Knowing that Cruise was actually a few feet of metal and fabric away from plummeting to his death added a realism and intensity to the scene that can't be understated. Yes, it takes place in the middle of the movie, but I still gasped several times--this may be due to the shock of not having seen an impressive, non-CGI-enhanced stunt since, probably, Casino Royale.
My last bit of praise goes to writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, though I have a couple of major gripes with them. I didn't think it possible for more life to be injected into this franchise, but they've created a fresh world full of tense and interesting situations for these characters to chew their way out of. They wisely don't complicate matters for the sake of making their film appear smarter than it is. Instead, they let minor complications lead to larger ones, and then step back to watch their characters react. I also love their decision to make Hendricks a background villain. He has maybe four lines of dialogue in the whole film, outside of footage from a years-old press conference in which he lays out his motivations.
Now to the problems. Skip ahead two paragraphs to avoid a major spoiler. It is revealed late in the picture that Hunt was sent to the Russian prison for executing the six thugs who murdered his wife (Michelle Monaghan) while the two were on vacation. We later learn that Brandt had been assigned to shadow Mrs. Hunt, but in a moment of neglect allowed her to be kidnapped. Hunt doesn't know Brandt's secret, leading to Ghost Protocol's most tense relationship.
Sadly, criminally, Appelbaum and Nemec decide that the film needs not just a happy ending, but a happy ending that no one should have been clamoring for in the first place: Hunt's wife, it turns out, is still alive. They'd faked her death in Russia to keep her identity safe while hubby was out dashing around the world. The prison incident was a ruse to acquire intel for another mission (or something). With this cuddly coda, the writers drain one of the film's most gut-wrenching scenes of all meaning. It's disgusting.
Okay, you can look now. My second issue with the screenplay concerns what may or may not be a keen bit of propaganda on the part of the filmmakers. There's a weird, pervasive attitude on the part of Hunt and his organization regarding the rights and sovereignty of the foreigners they spend most of the movie dealing with. I know I was supposed to be thrilled by the opening prison riot, for example, but all I could think of was how horrible it must have been for those guards and inmates to be beaten half to death by one another--all so that a dashing American spy could make a cool exit. At one point, I thought Hunt had decided to break up the fight and help the guards put everyone back in their cells; no, he just needed to retrieve his contact and split.
There's also the small but very telling matter of the IMF Secretary's warning to Hunt, which goes, I believe, like so: "As of right now, you're a suspected terrorist, which, in the eyes of our government means 'terrorist'". In light of the soon-to-be-ratified NDAA, this cool, throw-away line takes on a greater and darker significance. The message, essentially, is that if Ethan and his team are caught by the feds, they'll either be shot on sight or thrown into a hole with no chance to make their case. Luckily, the Secretary is a good dude, so we don't have to worry about watching Ethan Hunt Escapes from Guantanamo Bay.
Politics aside, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a surprising and exciting adventure that even the series' harshest critics will probably enjoy. It's no secret that Hollywood saves its best pictures for the end-of-the-year Awards Season, and it's nice to see that this goes for blockbusters, too. The film could've been lost in the summer shuffle of robots and superheroes. Thankfully, Paramount held back and gave us an early holiday gift.
*Some AMC Theatres claim to have IMAX theatres. But for anyone who's been to an actual IMAX auditorium--say, at Chicago's Navy Pier--you'll know instantly that these suburban shams are just really, really big screens (as opposed to "My God, I can barely take in the whole image in front of me, and I'm in the twentieth row"-sized screens). Hence, the nickname "LIE_MAX". I saw Ghost Protocol in LIE-MAX, and still got vertigo during the Dubai sequence.
**It's curious that a hotel/business center with "military grade security"--including lasers in the elevator shafts and cameras absolutely everywhere--would not have some kind of sensors in place to indicate that several windows have been removed. This is one of maybe three minor details that don't quite add up; in fairness, I may have missed the writers covering their tracks within the characters' disposable technobabble.
***My one critique is of Patton, who seems really out of place in an early dramatic scene. It's weird, too, because she was so terrific in Precious. There's a timidity in the way she cries, as if she's unsure of how realistic to go in the fourth Mission Impossible movie. Had I not been familiar with her previous work, I might have pegged this moment as just plain awful. That aside, she's a terrific addition to the series, and someone I really hope becomes a recurring player (small chance, given the franchise's penchant for boys'-club behavior).