The first Mission Impossible film, from Brian De Palma, was a slick and intelligent spy thriller. The second one was a brainless and campy John Woo film. The third was superb balls-to-the-wall nonstop action mayhem from JJ Abrams. Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol exists in the delicious space between all of the above, cheekily flaunting the best elements of the previous three films. It results in a ridiculously entertaining movie.
Ghost Protocol, directed by Pixar veteran Brad Bird in his live action debut practically shouts that if done properly, a great spy movie is a saucy genre of exotic suspense-filled locations, stereotyped tech experts and the big stunt payoff. The plot points in Ghost Protocol are knocked around like a ball at a rock concert, never slowing down long enough for us to process basic questions of logic. Brad Bird’s direction is eye-poppingly effective, rolling around a huge star and even bigger thrills, inserting unusual flamboyance into the film. It almost seems like the material is viagra to Bird. His dedication to pacing, while also making sure to lay satisfying character groundwork, keeps Ghost Protocol bombastic and fun. But the greatest accomplishment of Ghost Protocol is how funny it is. Just like in The Incredibles, Bird indulges in subtle, hilarious parodies of the spy film genre – it makes for a fresh and cheery spin on the franchise.
While the previous Mission Impossible installments were about the lone hero Ethan Hunt, Ghost Protocol refreshingly focuses on teamwork. And the ‘participation factor’ in the second half winds to such a fever pitch that the film feels like a Disney joy ride. You need the right actors to make an engaging spy movie and Brad Bird knows how to make each character seem whole and distinct. Tom Cruise leads a fun ensemble, including an unexpectedly meaty turn from funnyman Simon Pegg, Paula Patton who forgoes the typical wounded-kitten routine to play a confident butt-kicking field agent, and Jeremy Renner who effortlessly dodges and drop kicks the newbie curse. Bird cherry-picks pieces of his actors’ personalities, and he makes you want to see them together again in another film.
Tweaking a genre as familiar as this one is not easy, credit to first time screenwriters Josh Applebaum and André Nemec (frequent collaborators for JJ Abrams’ TV shows). Ghost Protocol opens with a murder and an amusing jailbreak scored to Dean Martin's ‘Ain't that a kick in the head’, which feels like watching a live action Pixar short. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his IMF team (Patton and Pegg) are entrusted with the mission to catch the batty Russian businessman Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) who is secretly shopping for nuclear weapons, launch codes and satellites in order to, well, destroy the world. Naturally things don’t go as planned, and our heroes find themselves framed, disavowed, and in hot waters. Hunt’s team joins forces with an IMF desk analyst (Renner) to chase down Hendricks, as they shuttle from Moscow to Dubai to the big showdown in Mumbai.
Bird guides us along the IMF’s plans without making us feel pandered to. More importantly, he manages to make us buy into their plans, with their stripped down simplicity of Bourne and the high-tech tools of Bond. Of course there are a few niggles – signboards in Mumbai inexplicably feature Telugu text. In fact the whole Mumbai section is unintentionally hilarious, as Anil Kapoor passionately makes a spectacle of himself on camera, playing a Shakti Kapoor-esque character. Also, Michael Nyqvist is criminally wasted as the underwritten villain, not making an impact the way Phillip Seymour Hoffman did in the previous film. But Ghost Protocol still succeeds, thanks to Mr Cruise, who exudes more than enough intensity to make the mild banalities barely matter.
Ghost Protocol has a crackerjack team behind the camera. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (Syriana, There will be blood, The Town) deserves a medal for the work he's turned in on this project. We’re treated to jaw dropping images in pristine IMAX, with wide framing focus on glossy style - a testament to the fact that Hollywood should focus on IMAX instead of 3D. The Burj Khalifa stunt (famously performed by Cruise himself) is quite extraordinary – you can feel your entrails turn in fright while watching it in IMAX. Paul Hirch’s editing is sleek, and the fight and chase scenes are free of drunken shaky camerawork. Bird keeps innovating with self-parody panache with the gizmos, one of which is a projector screen in a Kremlin hallway that is as clever as it is hilarious.
The ending may be a bit too happily-ever-after, but it's all good fun, because the movie is nothing but top-notch entertainment. Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol shapes up as the liveliest thriller of the year and a genuine blockbuster. Watch it, and in IMAX only.