Some sequels and series continuations happen because audiences seem to clamor for them, because the franchise in question has become a part of our lives, and we expect it to remain that way for as long as logically and humanly possible. Other times, the path of continuation, and its conclusion, is preordained by preexisting material, such as the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises. Then there are TV programs, whose longevity is paid for both by the act of millions tuning in, but also underwritten, if not always guaranteed, by awareness and topicality, by the way people talk about “what happened last night” over the water cooler, or on blogs and fan sites.
Then there are franchises like Mission: Impossible, and “clamoring” just doesn't quite seem to be the right word. It's true that the worldwide grosses of the first three films put together could bankroll about six Avatars. Would that were enough to support, too, the contention that anybody really cares about the IMF team and whoever's leading it (Jim Phelps in the original TV series, Ethan Hunt beginning with the 1996 film), but that simply doesn't seem to be the case. Instead, even more than with the Bourne movies, the Mission: Impossible franchise seems almost crudely mercenary in its formula for success, especially when, after a six-year gap, it changed directors from John Woo (whose work on the second film produced one of the strangest blockbuster movies ever made) to J. J. Abrams (whose clean professionalism in the third film, his feature debut, is about as strange as an episode of Grey's Anatomy), and now to erstwhile Pixar prodigy Brad Bird.
Bird's films with and before Pixar (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) have a peculiar, screwball rhythm that sets him apart even in a field of streamlined, über-professional animation direction, and he's often thought to be one of the only “auteurs” in the community—at least in the United States. His direction of Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol works feverishly to acquire the same weightless kineticism as his past triumphs. Truth be told, there are moments when the movie comes teasingly close to attaining escape velocity: a prison riot is staged like a Preston Sturges free-for-all, a secret agent shoots down two goons while falling off a building, and—in what seems to be a running contest with himself, the sequence that has now become the series trademark, i.e. Tom Cruise performing a climbing stunt over a very steep drop—our hero scales the face of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. For the most part, disappointingly, the movie often feels sluggish and secondhand, as if there were really nothing Hunt and his team could do, no scrapes they could miracle their way out of, that could truly wow anyone, anywhere, anymore.
As if to acknowledge this, the running joke in Ghost Protocol concerns the fact that the famous gadgets seem always to be on the blink. The iconic message doesn't self-destruct in five seconds, but needs a good hard knock in order to get on with it. The wall-scaling gloves seem to have exceeded their warranty period, and fail at just the wrong moments. And the machine that I can only think must be called “Insta-Mask” sputters and quits just as it begins to spray lifelike paint onto latex. It could be argued that all of this is intended to acknowledge a kind of cheeky humility in the franchise's stubborn survival, or that the disavowed team must make do with minimal resources. It could be that Cruise is turning 50 in a few months (just as the series turns 50 in a few years) and it's some kind of age/decrepitude gag.
Of course, that's not what the series is about, and expectations—impossible physics, impossible escapes, impossible coincidence—are a bitch. The script, by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec (both farmed from Bad Robot), dutifully ticks off all the required boxes, but the spectacle here is rarely novel, and never new. What's worse is that, after having cut their teeth on Alias and the American remake of Life on Mars, their notions of how people talk range from pedestrian to grossly inept—the showstopper being the scene in which Brandt (a shockingly listless Jeremy Renner) gives what can only be called his “What Happened in Croatia” speech, which is such a dire, un-actable, un-directable smear of exposition and backstory that I could have sworn out an affidavit it was a misdirect (to be exposed later), and a poor one at that.
That having been said, while Bird's direction is not nearly as fleet as his CV in animation would lead one to hope, it's not without its pleasures either. Many scenes were shot in IMAX, and if ever one needs to summon the unwieldy format to serve a non-documentary purpose, surely the shot that follows Cruise as he creeps out onto the ledge of the Burj Khalifa, with downtown Dubai rendered in exquisite detail many, many stories below, is one of the very best reasons for doing so. Other small pleasures include Paula Patton, wearing what seems to be a delicate wisp of green silk to a Mumbai black-tie affair; she's the other thing in the movie that will treat you to the experience of palm-sweating vertigo. Quite understandably smitten by this marvel of feminine sculpture and sophistication, Anil Kapoor (the slick TV host from Slumdog Millionaire), in a terrifically screwy appearance that amounts to the comic highlight of the entire quadrilogy, drools after her like a giggling, hyperactive child, hiding behind columns, confident his billions are a surefire aphrodisiac, but pleased beyond reason when she crushes his hand or slaps his silly face. Given the stakes, it was the only impossible mission I really cared about.