As shrewd a producer as he is a movie star, Tom Cruise conceived the Mission: Impossible franchise as a rotating auteur-centric series in which the tone of each installment would vary to accommodate the sensibility of the respective guiding hand. And, for two films, this is exactly what the series delivered. The first, directed by Brian De Palma, was a chilly, subversive, sublimely staged blockbuster driven by IMF super-agent Ethan Hunt's (Cruise) realization that he was a cog in a corrupt powerful machine. In other words, the film was infused with the theme that's concerned virtually every movie De Palma has ever made. Mission: Impossible II was directed by John Woo, which means that it was overheated, poetic, and alternately irresistible and irritating. A faintly anonymous operative in De Palma's film, Hunt became an impeccably tanned, bruised romantic with a flowing mane that'd shame any harlequin-romance cover model. The sequel couldn't touch the first film, but the new interpretation of Hunt suited Cruise, who'd never before shown this kind of sexy playfulness, and to a pleasantly surprising tee.
And then Cruise tapped Alias and Lost mastermind J.J. Abrams, who's anything but an auteur, for the third film, and their collaboration managed to almost entirely drain the series of its personality. It isn't that Abrams is a bad director (that actually might almost be more interesting), but his work is maddening in its impersonal competence. With the exception of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the baddie, the film was entirely forgettable.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, produced by Abrams but directed by animation wunderkind Brad Bird, is basically Mission: Impossible III as restaged by someone with a stronger sense of pacing and composition. The set pieces this time are often impressive and legitimately exciting. Hunt's much-hyped scale along the nearly all-glass side of the Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest building in the world, with unreliable suction-glove thingees no less, is brilliantly staged and authentically frightening, with a few unexpected touches here and there that knock the viewer for a loop. The sandstorm sequence, arguably the film's silliest moment, is still staged with a degree of geographic clarity and immediacy that shames most other Hollywood tent poles. And the finale is an ingeniously random and screwy showdown that finds Hunt playing a rather dangerous game of shoots and ladders within a multi-tiered parking lot in Mumbai.
The problem is that there isn't much in between these scenes. The plot, almost distractingly preoccupied with avoiding topicality, is a rehash of that old chestnut about the brilliant Russian madman who tries to ignite full-blown nuclear war between Russia and the U.S. so that most of the world's undeserving population will be obliterated. Early in the film, the madman (a bland Michael Nyqvist) frames Hunt's team for an explosion set off in the Kremlin (another impressive sequence), forcing the U.S. to enact "Ghost Protocol," which means that IMF is disbanded and that Hunt and his crew are now officially considered terrorists. Hunt must track the madman and his henchman down, avert nuclear catastrophe, save the world, redeem his country's name, and so forth.
In the tradition of the contemporary blockbuster, Ghost Protocol mostly features clipped, mundane dialogue that unimaginatively sets up the next big sequence with little pizzazz. In between the set pieces, Ghost Protocol is supremely well made but merely functional. There's precious little in the way of the kind of shamelessly escapist Hollywood glamour that marks a good Bond film, or even the second Mission: Impossible (the film is generally considered a joke now, but Ghost Protocol could use a bit of its movie-drunk lunacy). You're pathetically grateful for a brief scene that has Cruise and Paula Patton, who isn't given enough to do, kiss in order to lure the attentions of an intended mark. These few seconds are hotter and more glamorous than anything else in this or the prior film.
Ghost Protocol is still ultimately very enjoyable, and it's one of the best Hollywood action extravaganzas in recent years due to the crisp precision and ingenuity of Bird's direction, the fact that the competition is generally so poor, and Cruise himself. Obviously still trying to return to the public's good graces, he wisely plays Hunt as a guy whose devotion to his work has probably left him about a quarter mad. Cruise is often unconvincing in his phony Oscar-courting roles, but he can be quite charming when he chooses a character that allows him to (intentionally) channel his own self-consciousness. This is an intensely physical performance, of course, and some have made light of how often these films find Cruise running like a bat out of hell. But have those mocking him noticed how he runs? Cruise runs in character, there's never a doubt that the only thing on Hunt's mind is to get the job done, and this desperation, which coincides with the desperation that most audiences can't help but associate with the actor himself, imbues Ghost Protocol with humanity.
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This terrific transfer fully preserves the remarkable tactility of Robert Elswit's cinematography, which is particularly evident when you see the jaw-dropping scene on the side of the Burj Khalifa tower. The varying color schemes that differentiate the major scenes in the film (the festive reds and greens of the Mumbai party, the eerie oranges of the sand storm, the deco silver of the Dubai buildings) pop with even greater clarity than they did in the theater. The sound is mixed with the sort of precision you expect from a huge year-end release, and there are no detectable gaffes. Paramount understands that Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a huge popcorn movie that will play to full living rooms for a while, and has presented it in a fitting fashion.
The extras cover the making of Ghost Protocol with a thoroughness that's welcome and unusual, and there isn't a puff piece in sight. "Mission Accepted" and "Impossible Missions" are both roughly 50-minute features divided into chapters that, taken together, encapsulate the making of the entire film. "Mission Accepted" provides an overview of the general shooting schedule, starting with the first take, which is a shot of Tom Cruise changing out of his Russian disguise to impersonate a tourist. The most interesting and harrowing footage, not surprisingly, documents the shooting of the Burj Khalifa tower scene, which required Cruise, who did most of his own stunts, to dangle over a hundred stories above the Dubai streets for the better part of a week. "Impossible Missions" dives into the specifics of shooting the prison break that opens the film and the sandstorm sequence, as well as the creation of a number of the film's key props. Commentary provided by Brad Bird and producer/actor Cruise, clearly the governing voice of the series, along the way is sharp, informative and refreshingly light on the self-congratulatory nonsense. These docs show filmmaking as legitimate, demanding work, and for that they're two of the best making-of supplements I've seen included on a contemporary Blu-ray release in some time. Even the deleted scenes, which are normally a collection of outtakes or forgettable secondary scenes devoid of much context, give you a sense of how Bird ultimately streamlined footage that was initially busy and potentially confusing (say what you want about this movie, but it moves like a bullet). And, as always, a few trailers.
The fun Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol could've been better, but the Blu-ray is outstanding.