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Friday, January 20
Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)
Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, the first live-action venture by animation superstar Brad Bird, is at once the most gargantuan, ridiculous of the movies and the most cogent entry, occasionally explained to the point of tedium. It makes for an uneven effort, one that comes alive every time Bird stages another setpiece and grinding to a halt when the holdover influence of Abrams' pedestrian hit weighs down every bit of dialogue. Happily, Bird, perhaps self-conscious about the expectations upon him, absolutely loads his movie with fantastically over-the-top sequences that make for perhaps the most popcorn-worthy of this franchise.
Opening with a delightfully bizarre sequence involving LOST's Josh Holloway, Ghost Protocol moves swiftly into a prison break in Russia that bails out our hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). Though a bit stiffly presented at first, this setpiece encapsulates the best of the series: it's crazy to the point of comedy (both for its physical properties and the input of a surveilling Simon Pegg as Benji) yet suitably impressive in its staging. Once out, Ethan and his rescuers—Benji and Jane Carter (Paula Patton)—receive a mission to infiltrate the Kremlin, but in true Mission: Impossible fashion, everything soon goes haywire.
Ghost Protocol reveals itself to be a nuclear thriller, a decidedly old-fashioned plot with decidedly old-fashioned villains. Perhaps the dilapidated subject matter explains the recurring imagery of malfunctioning technology. Old gear shorts and fizzles, while even new gadgets fail when needed most. The conceit suggests Bird's awareness that this franchise is outdated. This is not a new realization; De Palma structured the first of these movies as an investigation of what a Cold War spy series would mean in the absence of the USSR. And now that Bond himself has undergone a makeover to cut the waffle, Bird's too-clever-by-half trick doesn't have much bite, and he comes to rely on it to the point that it becomes a crutch. Nevertheless, the director's playfulness toward the genre is a refreshing bit of self-awareness, albeit an unsurprising one from the man who gave us a superhero movie as sly as The Incredibles.
With this gleeful energy, Bird comes the closest to the spirit of De Palma's film, and he even carries over a few other traits of the first of the franchise's entries. De Palma assembled one of the strangest casts for an ostensible mainstream cash-in on a TV show, with actors of multiple nationalities and ethnicities breaking up the all-American, all-white tone of so much blockbuster cinema. Likewise, Bird stacks his cast with an oddball assortment of actors, putting a visibly aged but still-virile Cruise with the youthful but out-of-shape Pegg (at 41, he still looks as if he has baby fat), Patton, Midnight in Paris' Lea Seydoux, Slumdog Millionaire's Anil Kapoor (magnificently OTT, as ever), Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish Millennium films, and more. Considering that Hollywood's casting hasn't gotten much more diverse since De Palma's poked fun at it, Bird's lineup is one of the film's most entertaining aspects.
But the real reason to come to these things is the ludicrous setpieces, and Bird doesn't disappoint. The sequence where Hunt must scale some floors 1000 feet in the air in the Burj Dubai in minutes as everything goes wildly awry. I don't know what it is about this franchise and its vertiginous centerpieces, but this bit blows away the previous stunts. Seen on an IMAX screen, the camera's looks to the ground below create a queasy sense of fear, while the framing of Hunt's climb made me wonder "How did they DO that?" incessantly. Yet even better—to these eyes, anyway—was the sequence shortly thereafter, where Ethan chases his target through a swirling sandstorm that reduces visibility to mere inches and howls over the soundtrack to equally block out the audio. The chase is one of the most thrilling in recent memory, a rust-colored maelstrom that borders on the surreal for its many reversals, lost leads and resumed pursuits, and a frame that is always changing yet strangely static, given the constant blur caused by the sand. There are other delights, from a whacky Kremlin break-in to an even odder party crashing in India, but nothing matches that wild chase through obliterated Dubai streets.
Where the film loses me is in the need to back up all these wonderfully quirky, nonsensical pieces into some kind of coherent whole. The opening bits of Holloway and the prison break are great for how immediate and unexplained they are, and the drawn-out truth behind both takes away from their spontaneity and silliness. Both De Palma and Woo made even their explanations confusing as hell (though I'm not sure Woo did so intentionally), but Bird clarifies in a way that advertises his skill for making coherent narratives, a valuable talent but one misapplied here. Bird also picks up the baton from Abrams re: the simplistic use of romance and shattered love as a motivation. The threat hanging over Ethan's wife moved the third film, and Carter's rage over her lover's death prompts many of her actions, reducing her character to borderline sexist motivation as a woman incapable of behaving like a professional, elite spy after suffering an emotional gut-punch. Likewise, Jeremy Renner's character teases out a mystery that loses all of its force when he spills the beans, and even when his own interpretation of events is later reversed, Renner's whole subplot fails to add anything and saddles the excellent actor with too much arbitrary baggage. This is Screenwriting 101, and it adds all-too-easy foundations for a franchise that, again, works best when it is convoluted beyond all get-out.
Nevertheless, Ghost Protocol is a hell of a good show for an animation director looking to break into live action, demonstrating that the recent trend of live-action filmmakers moving into animation is not a one-way bridge. Bird's familiarity with boundless framing gives his action pieces an exuberance that makes their absurdities infectiously engaging. I understand that the complaint that everything makes too much sense is an odd one, and one I wouldn't apply anywhere else, but I did still feel nagged by certain pieces of exposition that felt all too common after the extraordinary creativity Bird brought to the project. But that imagination overpowers even the tiniest of quibbles, and Ghost Protocol is easily the finest of the series since De Palma tried to kill the franchise before it started with the first.