Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is so preposterously entertaining that it makes watching other recent Hollywood action spectacles feel like work. What in the last few years even compares to it?
The last Mission: Impossible installment, J. J. Abrams’s M:I-III, had a few diverting set pieces punctuated by way too much grimness and suffering. Abrams’s Star Trek was a lot more fun, more because of the bold, witty script and wonderful performances than much memorable action. Chris Nolan’s Inception was visually and conceptually dazzling, and his Batman films are as good as comic-book movies get, but Nolan has yet to shoot a single action sequence as lucid and powerful as any of the string of authoritative set pieces that highlight Ghost Protocol. Next to Ghost Protocol, most recent action flicks look either paltry (Iron Man, Salt), bloated (2012, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) or dreary (Robin Hood, Clash of the Titans).
With the lone exception of the latest mega-blockbuster from one of Hollywood’s canniest veteran filmmakers—James Cameron’s Avatar—I can’t think of another recent action spectacle that looks so good or that handles action so well. Quite an achievement for a director whose CV for the last 12 years consists of three animated films—even if those films are The Iron Giant and the Oscar-winning Pixar films The Incredibles and Ratatouille—and who is now venturing into live action for the first time. In a way, it might not have been surprising had Bird chosen to make a movie more like Avatar—that is, more like a computer-animated film, with lots of reliance on digital imagery. Instead, Bird has gone the other way, masterfully embracing old-fashioned practical effects, real-world stunts and clear, clean storytelling almost revolutionary in these days of hyperedited closeups and handheld cameras.
The press notes say that it was Tom Cruise’s idea to shoot the riveting Burj Khalifa sequence in Dubai high on the face of the real Burj Khalifa, now the tallest building in the world, rather than working with sets and computer effects. I believe it. No director in the world could ask any star in the world to do what Cruise does in that sequence. Of course digital post-production was used to erase the safety gear Cruise wore and so forth, but still and all it’s really Cruise, really over 100 stories up in the air high over the United Arab Emirates desert landscape, making like Spider-Man on the glass face of a needle-like skyscraper in the punishing Middle Eastern sun and winds. Cruise deserves all the credit in the world for the commitment and hard work that went into the sequence—but Bird’s achievement is making it breathtakingly suspenseful and immediate.
Plenty of directors can make even real stunt sequences look comparable to overprocessed fakery. Exhibit A: Brett Ratner’s first two Rush Hour films. Come to think of it, Ratner’s current film, Tower Heist, has a climactic scene with characters dangling from the face of a high-rise that made me think, while I was watching it, how much fun that scene ought to have been had it been shot by a director with any imagination or flair. Bird knows how to communicate the vertiginous thrill of a man stepping out into empty space thousands of feet above the ground. So few directors do these days. At my IMAX screening, a friend pronounced the Burj Khalifa sequence the best Hollywood action scene in the last 25 years. I wouldn’t go that far. Leaving out vehicular sequences like the Bourne car chases and effects-driven sequences like the Matrix lobby sequence and The Fellowship of the Ring’s Mines of Moria, for real human stuntwork the top candidate that comes to mind is the opening parkour set piece in Casino Royale. Still, the Burj Khalifa is a standout—and it’s only one of four or five terrific set pieces making Ghost Protocol a knockout, even if at times the action verges into overly cartoony exaggeration.
Is there anything more to Ghost Protocol than spectacle and style? Well, no, not really. That, some gorgeous globe-hopping backdrops (beautifully filmed by director of photography Robert Elswit) and the considerable star power of Cruise and his costers. These include returning comic sidekick Simon Pegg (Scotty in Abrams’ Star Trek) as tech agent Benji Dunn; Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) as an enigmatic desk agent; Paula Patton (Déjà Vu, Jumping the Broom) replacing Maggie Q in the role of Kickboxing Female Agent who Gets out of a Snazzy Sportscar in a Slinky Dress at Some Fancy Soirée. The story gives these characters just enough personal history to have motivations and emotions that are important to them, if not to us, but that’s enough to be serviceable. Bird’s animated films are so full of heart and ideas that one could reasonably have hoped for a transformational take on Mission: Impossible for his live-action debut. Instead, for the first time directing from a screenplay he neither wrote himself nor rewrote (as he rewrote Ratatouille after taking over the project from Jan Pinkava), Bird has taken the opportunity to flex his muscles—to showcase for the world, and possibly to discover for himself, what he can do in a new medium. Other extraordinary sequences include a chase sequence in a sandstorm in which visibility drops to zero and a climactic hand-to-hand combat in a high-rise robotic parking garage with cars on hydraulic platforms moving up and down. I can’t think of anything offhand comparable to either one.
One thing that makes these scenes special is the way Bird injects personality into them. An opening set piece, with Hunt breaking out of a Russian prison amid a prisoner riot, comes to a head in a silent exchange between Hunt and Benji Dunn in which neither party can hear the other, and Hunt can’t even see Benji, but each knows exactly what the other is thinking. In other sequences, the movie’s most reliable gambit is for the Impossible Missions Force’s high-tech gadgets—some of which are among the most inspired gadgets we’ve seen in a long time—to fail, forcing the agents to improvise. This isn’t played for mere cleverness, but for how the characters respond, and it ratchets up the suspense to tightrope tension. I also really like a few wincing moments when Hunt doesn’t quite nail his landings, with potentially disastrous consequences. Fallibility and vulnerability make a hero more appealing, like Indiana Jones not quite making that first jump in the Peruvian temple, or landing hard on his backside when slugged by the burly German pilot. (By contrast, an opening stunt with an IMF agent landing a crazy backward jump off a roof onto an absurdly tiny airbag sets an unfortunate precedent that the movie doesn’t shake off for awhile—and the rolling climactic sequence goes too far in allowing its heroes to shrug off ridiculous amounts of physical punishment.)
Ultimately, the movie’s breezy confidence and lighthearted tone is a big part of its success. Like all the best moments in the Mission: Impossible films so far, Ghost Protocol is a romp, and it knows it. In my review of Mission: Impossible III I commented that “for the first time a Mission: Impossible movie has a level of emotional urgency. The downside is, having seen it, I’m not sure I want emotional urgency in a Mission: Impossible movie.” Ghost Protocol has just about everything I want in a Mission: Impossible movie, and just about nothing that I don’t.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo edition with substantial bonus features, including a package of making-of featurettes totalling nearly 100 minutes.
The highlight is the sequence on the Birj Khalifa set piece, which is actually more thrilling than the set piece itself, and certainly makes the set piece more interesting. This sequence shows not only how much time Cruise spent climbing and swinging 130 stories in the air in the punishing Middle Eastern sun and winds, but also how hard the filmmakers worked to get the access and camera angles they needed, what the safety precautions were, and so on.
There are also extras on the the parking garage finale — amazingly a set, not a real location — the sandstorm chase scene and the various gadgets and props used in the film. Brad Bird offers commentary throughout, and talks about the importance of the jumps that Ethan doesn’t quite land, and how he looked to the very movie I cited in my review, Raiders of the Lost Ark, for inspiration on the vulnerable action hero. Bird also offers some nice commentary on a collection of (wisely) deleted scenes, though there’s no commentary track for the film itself, alas.
Here’s my 30-second take on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
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