The fourth film in the franchise and the first live-action endeavor from director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant), Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is filled with the verve and clarity of his animated action sequences while lending just enough gravity and remote plausibility to the stunts and gadgetry to keep it from becoming a glorified cartoon in and of itself.
We last saw Impossible Mission Forces agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) all but walking into the sunset with new wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Now? He’s locked up in a Russian prison and she’s nowhere to be found. In no time, Ethan is retrieved by IMF colleagues Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and newly promoted field agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, similarly promoted from the ranks of comic relief) and enlisted to help prevent a nuclear physicist code-named Cobalt (Michael Nyqvist of the original Dragon Tattoo films) from launching a couple of warheads in a planet-scorching plot worthy of a Bond film.
However, things go awry quite quickly for the team, as Cobalt frames them for a bombing at the Kremlin and the U.S. government consequently disavows the entire IMF agency -- meaning that our three agents, along with intelligence analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), are armed only with limited supplies and no support in their efforts to avert worldwide destruction.
But for all the future tech that remains at their disposal, the gadgets often proceed to malfunction, with the first indication coming as a message that will self-destruct fails to do so. This sets the tone for the just-out-of-reach antics that Alias vets Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec have scripted for Hunt and the gang to conquer. The vaguely smirking villain and his devious plot are straight out of the Cold War, though divorced from that era’s pervasive paranoia (to which this month’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy helped itself), and a sprightlier sense of humor crops up nicely throughout without being doled out exclusively by Pegg as it often was in M:I-3. Obstacles aside, he, Cruise, Patton and Renner play off one another well between united feats of aligned purpose and individual prowess; perhaps more than in any other entry, no one member of the team feels any less vital than the others.
The real accomplishments tend to come from the team behind the camera, with Bird’s boy-and-his-toys ingenuity defining action sequences that are then executed with the confidence of a veteran. What’s more (literally) is the use of IMAX cameras for the action sequences, rivaling Christopher Nolan’s work on The Dark Knight for sheer scope and immersion, with the footage smoothly integrated into the film by way of an expanding frame (as opposed to the somewhat jarring shifts of Nolan’s footage, though fitting for that relative bruiser of a blockbuster). The technique really shines in the staggering Dubai-set centerpiece, an already breathless union of con game, car chases, foot chases, and good old-fashioned derring-do in, outside of, and around the towering Burj Khalifa skyscraper that is made all the more vertigo-inducing by the format for a solid 20 minutes. It’s an applause-earning show-stopper that outdoes the excellent bridge battle from the previous film and inevitably serves as a peak of sorts, the momentum from which carries the rest of this entry through to its hasty conclusion.
Every pummeling and pursuit is shot and cut for maximum clarity throughout by Robert Elswit and Paul Hirsch, respectively. A common thread between Bird and former series director/current producer J.J. Abrams, composer Michael Giacchino delivers another rousing score that leaps forth from the classic themes of the show to define itself in rightfully thrilling ways. Only one scenario involving magnetic levitation tests the tethers of suspended disbelief, evoking the first film’s iconic man-on-a-string antics without any of the string or nearly as much tension.
Hunt’s ultimate showdown with Cobalt echoes that of Goldfinger, and while it would appear counterproductive for this franchise to fashion itself after another spy series, it happens to be modeling itself on Bond adventures the likes of which aren’t really made anymore. Just as newly gritty heroes seem to have run their course (fingers crossed), Cruise and Bird are doing their damnedest to maintain the escapist thrills that we as audiences will always choose to accept.