Friday, January 20, 2012

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)

The trait that links all four Mission: Impossible movies, each helmed by a different director of wildly differing stylistic sensibilities, is a certain amount of incomprehensibility. De Palma's original, which has aged better than any of its successors, is a smorgasbord of that filmmaker's love of audience manipulation, leftist politics, and metacinematic pranksterism. John Woo's sequel is, if anything, even crazier, replacing the peevish joke structure of De Palma's satire with pure, free-form abandon. J.J. Abrams' installment significantly pared down the twists and turns of the franchise's plots, making for the most conventionally satisfying of the series, yet the one that leaves me the coldest.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, the first live-action venture by animation superstar Brad Bird, is at once the most gargantuan, ridiculous of the movies and the most cogent entry, occasionally explained to the point of tedium. It makes for an uneven effort, one that comes alive every time Bird stages another setpiece and grinding to a halt when the holdover influence of Abrams' pedestrian hit weighs down every bit of dialogue. Happily, Bird, perhaps self-conscious about the expectations upon him, absolutely loads his movie with fantastically over-the-top sequences that make for perhaps the most popcorn-worthy of this franchise.

Opening with a delightfully bizarre sequence involving LOST's Josh Holloway, Ghost Protocol moves swiftly into a prison break in Russia that bails out our hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). Though a bit stiffly presented at first, this setpiece encapsulates the best of the series: it's crazy to the point of comedy (both for its physical properties and the input of a surveilling Simon Pegg as Benji) yet suitably impressive in its staging. Once out, Ethan and his rescuers—Benji and Jane Carter (Paula Patton)—receive a mission to infiltrate the Kremlin, but in true Mission: Impossible fashion, everything soon goes haywire.

Ghost Protocol reveals itself to be a nuclear thriller, a decidedly old-fashioned plot with decidedly old-fashioned villains. Perhaps the dilapidated subject matter explains the recurring imagery of malfunctioning technology. Old gear shorts and fizzles, while even new gadgets fail when needed most. The conceit suggests Bird's awareness that this franchise is outdated. This is not a new realization; De Palma structured the first of these movies as an investigation of what a Cold War spy series would mean in the absence of the USSR. And now that Bond himself has undergone a makeover to cut the waffle, Bird's too-clever-by-half trick doesn't have much bite, and he comes to rely on it to the point that it becomes a crutch. Nevertheless, the director's playfulness toward the genre is a refreshing bit of self-awareness, albeit an unsurprising one from the man who gave us a superhero movie as sly as The Incredibles.

With this gleeful energy, Bird comes the closest to the spirit of De Palma's film, and he even carries over a few other traits of the first of the franchise's entries. De Palma assembled one of the strangest casts for an ostensible mainstream cash-in on a TV show, with actors of multiple nationalities and ethnicities breaking up the all-American, all-white tone of so much blockbuster cinema. Likewise, Bird stacks his cast with an oddball assortment of actors, putting a visibly aged but still-virile Cruise with the youthful but out-of-shape Pegg (at 41, he still looks as if he has baby fat), Patton, Midnight in Paris' Lea Seydoux, Slumdog Millionaire's Anil Kapoor (magnificently OTT, as ever), Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish Millennium films, and more. Considering that Hollywood's casting hasn't gotten much more diverse since De Palma's poked fun at it, Bird's lineup is one of the film's most entertaining aspects.

But the real reason to come to these things is the ludicrous setpieces, and Bird doesn't disappoint. The sequence where Hunt must scale some floors 1000 feet in the air in the Burj Dubai in minutes as everything goes wildly awry. I don't know what it is about this franchise and its vertiginous centerpieces, but this bit blows away the previous stunts. Seen on an IMAX screen, the camera's looks to the ground below create a queasy sense of fear, while the framing of Hunt's climb made me wonder "How did they DO that?" incessantly. Yet even better—to these eyes, anyway—was the sequence shortly thereafter, where Ethan chases his target through a swirling sandstorm that reduces visibility to mere inches and howls over the soundtrack to equally block out the audio. The chase is one of the most thrilling in recent memory, a rust-colored maelstrom that borders on the surreal for its many reversals, lost leads and resumed pursuits, and a frame that is always changing yet strangely static, given the constant blur caused by the sand. There are other delights, from a whacky Kremlin break-in to an even odder party crashing in India, but nothing matches that wild chase through obliterated Dubai streets.

Where the film loses me is in the need to back up all these wonderfully quirky, nonsensical pieces into some kind of coherent whole. The opening bits of Holloway and the prison break are great for how immediate and unexplained they are, and the drawn-out truth behind both takes away from their spontaneity and silliness. Both De Palma and Woo made even their explanations confusing as hell (though I'm not sure Woo did so intentionally), but Bird clarifies in a way that advertises his skill for making coherent narratives, a valuable talent but one misapplied here. Bird also picks up the baton from Abrams re: the simplistic use of romance and shattered love as a motivation. The threat hanging over Ethan's wife moved the third film, and Carter's rage over her lover's death prompts many of her actions, reducing her character to borderline sexist motivation as a woman incapable of behaving like a professional, elite spy after suffering an emotional gut-punch. Likewise, Jeremy Renner's character teases out a mystery that loses all of its force when he spills the beans, and even when his own interpretation of events is later reversed, Renner's whole subplot fails to add anything and saddles the excellent actor with too much arbitrary baggage. This is Screenwriting 101, and it adds all-too-easy foundations for a franchise that, again, works best when it is convoluted beyond all get-out.

Nevertheless, Ghost Protocol is a hell of a good show for an animation director looking to break into live action, demonstrating that the recent trend of live-action filmmakers moving into animation is not a one-way bridge. Bird's familiarity with boundless framing gives his action pieces an exuberance that makes their absurdities infectiously engaging. I understand that the complaint that everything makes too much sense is an odd one, and one I wouldn't apply anywhere else, but I did still feel nagged by certain pieces of exposition that felt all too common after the extraordinary creativity Bird brought to the project. But that imagination overpowers even the tiniest of quibbles, and Ghost Protocol is easily the finest of the series since De Palma tried to kill the franchise before it started with the first.


  1. Excellent review, very concise as always. This was a watchable enough show, but it was too stiff and uncertain and we never got the sense of being directed by a true Master like De Palma, whose philosophical, political and industrial insights made M:I a mind-blowing experience. Not to mention the unsurpassed suspense.

    M:I-GP becomes ridiculous after the fifth or so idea borrowed from the original (and its never-ending coda), but has its moments. The final parking sequence is stellar and there was something astonishing in the sandstorm sequence when the sand became one with the film grain.


  2. I didn't respond to this as strongly as you and many of the film's other supporters, but I was wowed by those initial gut-turning skyscraper shots and the chase through the sandstorm is fantastic. Wish it didn't all boil down to a game of keep-away with a suitcase, or that this wasn't yet another action movie in which we watch our hero dispense dozens of thugs early in the movie without trouble and then struggle against an old dude in a suit later on (never mind the cliche in which the villain has to jump through elaborate hoops to launch his plan but it can all be undone with the push of a button). I'll say this, though: nothing about Cruise's early career ever suggested to me that he'd make for a good action star, and here he is at 50 kicking some serious butt and looking convincing doing it (except in the moments when Bird can't quite hide that Cruise is only slightly taller than Mini Me).

  3. My favourite scene was not the Burj and its aftermath. I blame the other bloggers who spoiled that for me. Although I do like the compositions that the sandstorm chase produced. My fave are teh first to scenes because there's so much going on. Lea Seydoux as a femme fatale, the exact opposite of her shallow character in Midnight in Paris. The prison break scene and that Eminem song adding to its kinetic excitement. But I agree about Jeremy Renner, that his character's past didn't distract nor explain for how whiny and negative he was all the time. The movie itself is cartoony and I found that a bit of a distraction maybe because it's so self aware about it. But yeah, I had fun.

  4. This is the first Mission Impossible I've seen, and I was surprised by how easy it was to watch nonetheless. Suprisingly, everything about this works in some way or another, which is all you can really ask for in this genre.

    As for Tom Cruise, the guy has his good days and bad days. I never got the hate.

  5. I'm very late to the party but I JUST got around to seeing this movie and I agree with you on most points. It did bug me that Agent Carter seemed to act very unprofessional and consistently screwed up throughout the movie. Not to mention that the blonde femme fatale (minutes after saying she had "killed the best") couldn't even manage to hold her gun when Carter was running at her. I get that she would be surprised but a trained assassin would react appropriately. Way to go, Hollywood.