Tuesday, January 3, 2012

This Might Be the Best "Mission" Yet

The first "Mission: Impossible" film directed by Brian DePalma is remembered for impressive action scenes and an overly convoluted plot. The second directed by John Woo was an overly stylized mess. The third, with J.J. Abrams, was serviceable, but really nothing special. I don't think anyone would have complained if the series had just ended there, or if the studio had waited a few years and rebooted the whole franchise. But now along comes the fourth "Mission: Impossible" film with Tom Cruise, directed by PIXAR alum Brad Bird, and it makes me glad that Cruise didn't throw in the towel just yet.

"Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol," is easily the best installment since the first, and the most fun. A lot of this has to do with the supporting cast members, who get way more time and attention than they have in any of the other films. Tom Cruise is still playing Ethan Hunt, the super-proficient IMF agent who has a yen for daredevil stunts and aerial acrobatics. However, this time the team he leads is composed of actual characters like Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who played a funny techie in a previous film and has been promoted to full agent, Jane Carter (Paula Patton) who has a personal beef with one of their targets, and an analyst named William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) who is keeping a lot of secrets.

"Ghost Protocol" has a different feel to it than any of the other "Mission: Impossible" films, offering the least convoluted plot, lots of humor, and the best use of its ensemble. It has totally given up any pretense of being a proper spy film grounded in any kind of reality, and instead has embraced being more of an out-and-out adventure spectacle. I think it's a change for the better. Grittiness and moral ambiguity have been left to the Bonds and Bournes, while the IMF team goes off to perform elaborately staged missions in picture-perfect exotic locales, backed by a rousing score from Michael Giacchino. Ethan Hunt gets to climb around on the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. And he gets to infiltrate the Kremlin with help of a couple of fancy gadgets that couldn't possibly exist with the current technology. And crash a party in Mumbai with a very cool car. It's pure spy fantasy, and fantastically well done.

The villains are shallow and uncomplicated in their villainy, and include an extremist (Michael Nyqvist) looking for Russian nukes, a femme fatale assassin (Lea Seydoux) who insists on being paid in diamonds, and most amusingly, an Indian media mogul (Anil Kapoor). This is not to say that the movie ever feels dumbed down from the previous "Mission: Impossible" films, but it has definitely shifted in tone to be lighter and less emotionally fraught. There's plenty of personal drama at hand, but in moderation. It was a pleasant surprise to realize that "Ghost Protocol" is probably the only "Mission: Impossible" that is not about Ethan Hunt, but about the actual mission that his team is trying to carry out.

And so I'm glad to report that you get real, full, memorable performances from Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, and Simon Pegg, to complement Tom Cruise. Their characters get full story arcs, instead of filling out the background like some of their predecessors. Pegg is easily the least annoying comic sidekick I've run across all year, and the movie would have been worse off without him. Patton gets more to do as the female lead than the usual winsome romantic interests with twice the screen time. And if the "Mission: Impossible" franchise does decide to elevate Jeremy Renner to the leading man position, it's in good hands.

As for Tom Cruise, what can you say? He's as good at playing Ethan Hunt as he always was. He sells the unbelievable stunts, still cleans up good, and remains in desperate need of a haircut. He'll deliver ludicrous dialogue with perfect conviction, and I still buy it in spite of myself. I don't know much longer he can play the action hero like this, but his age isn't showing yet, and he certainly isn't slowing down.

So "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" is a good time. It's well made light entertainment created by people who understand that they're making light entertainment. The lines are corny, but the writing also had a streak of self-awareness I was surprised and pleased to see. Brad Bird is as good creating live action spectacle as he is creating the animated kind, and I hope he'll go on to make more of both.

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