I remember very little about the first three “Mission: Impossible” films. There’s a vague recollection of labyrinthine plots and Tom Cruise dangling precariously from a zipline, but not much else. This doesn’t mean the films were bad; it just means they don’t share as much space in my movie memory bank. So, I sat down to “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” with a clean slate, unconcerned with the specters of its predecessors. I expected little, despite the rave reviews. To my great pleasure, I came away thinking I’d seen one of the most accomplished action films in years. Yes, Tom Cruise dangles precariously from a zipline in the this one, but that’s nothing compared to the spectacular moment when he literally hangs by his fingertips from the tallest building in the world.
This time around, Ethan Hunt, agent for the super-secret Impossible Missions Force, races against the literal spy movie clock to stop a Russian nuclear expert’s plan to obliterate a chunk of good old Americana with a missile. The villain, Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), aka Cobalt, blows up a bit of the Kremlin as a diversionary tactic to steal coordinates for the satellite that links up to the warhead—a feat he carries out by honoring the grand tradition that action movie bad guys rarely, if ever, smile. Blamed by the Russians for the attack, the President of the United States initiates Ghost Protocol, a term I can’t imagine is real, but in this film means the IMF has been disavowed. Ethan and his team—field agents Jane (Paula Patton) and Benji (Simon Pegg), a computer dork, and CIA analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who seems destined to take up the mantle in future “Mission: Impossible” movies—have been pinned for the crime and go on the run.
I’ve only just skimmed the surface of the plot, because plot doesn’t matter in a movie called “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” What happens and why is really little more than a short link in a very long chain of spectacular action set pieces. The race to stop Hendricks will take the team from Moscow to Dubai, where Ethan attempts to break into a server room in the Burj Khalifa from the outside. That sequence, mid-way through the film, is one hell of spot of filmmaking, as Ethan scales the building with the aid of special gloves while all of Dubai spins around him in a vertiginous whirl. I understand Cruise did the stunt himself without the help of CGI. If this is true, he deserves some kind of medal for bravery. A high-tech holograph screen plays a tense, if comical, role as Ethan & Co. attempt to beat Hendricks to the satellite coordinates. All of this leads, of course, to a thrilling showdown in a robotic parking garage, as Ethan and Hendricks battle it out over the fate of the missile, dodging and weaving cars on automated platforms.
Here is a movie that could easily have been directed by someone experienced in the genre–maybe Paul Greengrass or Tony Scott. But I was stunned to find that the director was Brad Bird, previously known for helming animated films like “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.” This is Bird’s first live-action film, and he handles the challenge with aplomb, moving from one slam-bang action scene to the next with the heedless energy of a boy smashing up his toy cars. The performances are fine, even if the characters are standard issue. Cruise may have a little age and wear on him, but he’s nonetheless effective in the role he created fifteen years ago. Jeremy Renner, an actor capable of shocking intensity, plays it on the calmer side as a government lackey whose surprising grasp of hand-to-hand combat betrays a critical secret. And Simon Pegg seems to have cornered the market on comical sidekicks. I don’t know how quickly he’ll weary of the role, but it sure is fun to watch him play it.