An Impossible Mission with Four Times the Improbability
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a very good action film—a satisfying theme park of technologically complex attractions. It’s thrilling to witness the heroes’ (and heroine’s) superlative dexterity as they navigate the machinery of the chaotic set pieces. Pixar veteran Brad Bird is a visual wizard, and he more than proves himself capable of handling live action fare, directing over-the-top sequences as preposterous and exciting as the action in Ratatouille and The Incredibles.
The script plays it safe with eminently likeable characters and a plot that molds a serviceable story around the colossal structures of espionage. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) re-assumes his role as the persevering savior, alongside series veteran Benji (Simon Pegg). Benji’s clumsy comic relief avoids reproach thanks to Ethan, who infallibly fixes his mishaps, each time narrowly averting catastrophe. Jane Carter (Paula Patton) is introduced through a revenge story, making the confrontation with her lover’s killer—assassin Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux)—more compelling as she juggles duty with personal vendetta. Joining them is William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), a deadweight analyst, later revealed to be a skilled agent with an unknown agenda. But his moral ambiguity soon dissipates, his motivations revealed as being no different than the groups’. No surprise there. When a story is clearly defined as an archetypal battle between good and evil, it’s easy to see why the screenwriters would want to strengthen the unity of the IMF team; more heroes leads to a more rousing finale.
And that’s where Ghost Protocol falters—from the film’s somewhat frustrating application to the bigger-is-better school, evinced by the screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec’s decision to put the whole world at risk, implementing the unequivocally dangerous threat of nuclear holocaust. Nobody in a contemporary blockbuster audience will ever expect a studio film to end with Earth’s total annihilation. The bleak endings of 1970s Hollywood cinema—like mankind’s extinction in Beneath the Planet of the Apes—are no longer found in big-budgeted wide releases; there’s no real threat when the hero is up against a megalomaniac bent on worldwide destruction. By contrast, Mission: Impossible and Mission: Impossible III’s less predictable climaxes each had a much smaller scope, with Ethan facing a more personal adversary. Consequently, they also had higher stakes and achieved higher suspense, ending with an emotionally powerful showdown where we see Ethan pushed over the edge by the death of his love interest and betrayal of his mentor in M:I, and by his wife’s apparent execution and his friend’s betrayal in M:i:III. (Mission Impossible II implemented a similarly personal villain, but John Woo squandered the gift of Hans Zimmer’s masterful score with his melodramatic story and empty characters. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3iAzdbg3mo )
This insistence on a perpetually mammoth scale is demonstrated by Bird’s need to incorporate multiple conflicts into every action sequence—there are often many dangers to overcome. At times, it gets excessive.
Inciting the cynical snickers of incredulous audience members, Hunt and Brandt dodge the train yard poles while struggling to enter the safe-house (er, safe-cart), which requires them to enter the passcode, retinal scan, etc. This is a pointless 1 minute sequence that is plain silly. “Whoa!” William yelps as he narrowly dodges the beams, despite the fact that the train is moving at like 5 mph. You’d think he’d notice the obstruction before it was five feat in front of him. This scene is an annoying attempt to prolong suspense.
But Bird’s conflict-layering action can also work damn well, most notably during Ethan’s insane scaling of the Burj Dubai (aka the Tower of Babel). Ghost Protocol is the third film shot with IMAX cameras (preceded by The Dark Knight and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), and the 70mm format demonstrates how “2D” (which is, as Christopher Nolan wisely puts, “a misnomer,” as all films are 3-D) trumps stereoscopic “3D” imaging in terms of engrossing visual splendor.
As if watching Ethan crawl up the world’s tallest building wasn’t pulse pounding enough, Bird boosts the suspense with a looming sandstorm.
Then, the audience holds its breath as one of Ethan’s gloves malfunctions, followed by the loss of his second glove. An additional conflict is layered on when his rope can’t reach his room, which gives way to the series’ most spectacular stunt…
Ethan propels himself into space during an incredibly daring feat—an intrepid motif where the hero must leap into the jaws of death in order to emerge victorious.
This literal leap of faith recurs when Brandt is unable to reach the platform. He bravely decides to cannonball down the shaft, and he doesn’t stop his fall by spreading his limbs until he is inches from the giant metal fan, which then propels him higher up thanks to the momentous boost, launching him to safety. The leap steals the spectator’s breath because it is seemingly suicidal; then it evokes gratifying relief when we become aware of the hero’s ballsy intentions.
The adrenaline fueled motif originates from the opening rooftop chase. During his ostensibly suicidal leap, Agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway) guns down the pursuing guards midair and waits last second to break his fall with an instantly-inflatable pad. Bird savors the spectatorial shock elicited during this transient suspension in space—a fall to seemingly certain death.
Ghost Protocol’s first two thirds (mostly) give us the best action blockbuster entertainment has to offer—which makes the choppy, final third all the more painful to watch. It’s a horrendous, unforgivable mess. From the arrival in India and on, the script simply goes through the motions. The unrealistic and imbecilic final showdown sees a veteran super-agent physically bested by an old, clumsy scientist whom one could logically assume lacks any combat training. Bird clearly wanted his final monstrous technological structure—a rotating car garage—to get its fair share of screen-time. As a result, Ethan is infused with impotence, infected with inexplicable clumsiness, somehow unable to grab the damn briefcase despite his many opportunities. And it doesn’t help that villain Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) lacks intrigue, unlike M:I and M:i:III‘s complex baddies. M:i:III‘s Owen Davian’s (a memorable, underrated performance by the great Philip Seymour Hoffman) confrontation with Ethan is far more compelling thanks to Davian’s believable high ground gained from his victory in their psychological battle—not an unrealistic physical brawl.
I suppose their fight had to be prolonged in order to conclude the climax with a cliche last-second missile dismantling. But somebody should inform Bird that nuclear bombs detonate above skyscrapers, not on impact, so in real life—bye bye San Francisco. Also, there are some plot incongruities, which Brandt seems to be amusingly conscious of. “The flare on the body, why did that work?” Good question, Brandt. Why the hell was every Russian soldier fooled by so obvious a decoy? “Wait a second, Ethan. You’re talking about handing over active nuclear launch codes to Wistrom?” he gasps in disbelief, along with the audience. Wouldn’t it be more logical to just kill the mad man that threatens all life on Earth?
Despite its expert direction, I felt Ghost Protocol was unduly praised. Perhaps this stems from my frustration in finding very few critics who acknowledge the greatness of Brian De Palma’s original adaptation. Now, character-centric espionage is replaced by kinetic action. Prefaced by the winding fuse in the opening titles, the film takes the audience on one hell of a roller coaster ride—but the fixed, conventional path lying ahead couldn’t be more linear.
Rating: 3½ out of 5 stars