REVIEW: Ethan Hunt Goes Emo in Patchy, Flashy Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol
What does it take to revive a passion for one's work, years on, whether said vocation is saving the world or churning out sequels in a blockbuster franchise? How does one reclaim human contact in today's isolating, gadget-dependent world? These are questions IMF agent Ethan Hunt and his portrayer Tom Cruise face in Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, Cruise's fourth outing in the spy series, directed entertainingly enough by Pixar veteran Brad Bird. If the hoodied Cruise evokes a touch of Eminem-level moodiness in the posters, it's with good reason: Stopping a maniacal supervillain may be on the docket yet again, but this time around Ethan Hunt has gone emo.
Blame it on fatigue in a franchise that never consisted of much more than a series of set pieces and gadget porn held together with flimsy plot threads which all nevertheless managed to entertain, however superficially and evanescently, because of the charisma that Cruise exudes. The first Mission: Impossible film, based loosely on the 1966 television show, coasted to box office success in 1996, an engaging alternative to the flagging James Bond juggernaut; as for 2000's unfortunate John Woo-helmed sequel -- well, some missions are impossible, better left flailing in the distant past of cinematic memory. J.J. Abrams managed to reinvigorate the series with 2006's Mission: Impossible III, but even then it seemed the creative juices had stopped flowing for both the franchise and its star.
To Bird's credit, his first foray into live-action feature filmmaking in Ghost Protocol opens on a cracking, near-wordless sequence that speaks to years spent perfecting visual storytelling in the Pixar fold: Descending upon a high security Russian facility, an impromptu prison riot erupts as a cover for the extraction of one Ethan Hunt, glimpsed only from behind, who lies coolly on his cot bouncing a makeshift rock-ball against the wall as chaos explodes around him. He mulls the idea of freedom. He hesitates. Then, finally, Hunt grudgingly exits his cell, placing the granite plaything back in the wall he carved it from with probably nothing more than his fingertips, presumably over the span of years of solitude -- the same fingertips that used to cling to sheer cliff sides miles above the ground with no safety lines, just for kicks -- and leaps into superman mode, shrugging his way through a comically breezy exit like it's just another Tuesday at the office.
He is still Ethan Hunt, of course, but something's changed. He's tired of the spy game. A bit jaded. He's maybe, probably getting too old for this shit, and his failed relationship -- did wife Julia leave him, or worse? -- haunts him. When IMF tech-turned-field operative Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and a new lady agent (Paula Patton) excitedly bust Hunt out of his mysterious, maybe self-imposed seclusion for a new mission, he only reluctantly chooses to accept it.
Said mission comes on the heels of a prologue operation gone wrong, in which Patton's Agent Jane Carter loses her teammate/spy boyfriend Trevor (Josh Holloway) and a set of nuclear launch codes to a dastardly European assassin (Léa Seydoux). (French girls, they'll do it to you every time.) Hunt and Co., tasked with breaking into the Kremlin on a related mission to track a shadowy terrorist named Cobalt, find themselves compromised and IMF scapegoated when the Kremlin is reduced to rubble in a brain-rattling explosion; disavowed by the American government and flying sans backup, with Jeremy Renner's buttoned-up analyst-with-a-secret rounding out the team, the spy gang sets out on their real mission: Stop Cobalt, save the world from destruction, etc., yadda yadda yadda.
As with every film in the franchise, the plot machinations are neither important nor realistic, let alone meaningful. Worse yet, they're terribly cheesy. A Euro-centric baddie (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Michael Nyqvist, tragically reduced to cartoonish villainy) with designs on nuclear world war who wants to pave the way for a new world order? A well-heeled French assassin chick who murders in exchange for diamonds? So '90s-era rejected Bond script, guys. Writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec even commit the facepalm-inducing sin of having poor Renner stand against a wall, stiff drink in hand, to recite key exposition to his teammates in order to explain secrets and backstory to the audience. (Renner gamely powers through, while Patton struggles to feign even the slightest bit of awkwardness as the film's only heroine, a lethal spy crippled... by her inability to flirt.)
In a way, the totally '90s elements work within a larger sense of nostalgic self-awareness that flickers in and out of the film's consciousness, with varying results. A broken Soviet payphone housing Hunt's next IMF mission pays homage to the Cold War origins and dated gimmickry of the original series, though the nod inadvertently muddles Ghost Protocol's tone. At least Pegg's Benji offers a dose of sweet comic relief, leavening Cruise's sulkiness with a clever charm that serves to show that the filmmakers are well aware of what got played to death in previous installments. (In a word: Masks.) Still, you get the feeling Bird longed for the days of workshopping those excellent Pixar tales at a studio full of experienced storytellers for months, maybe years even, as he dutifully leapfrogged over character development and tonal balance to nail the franchise's real attractions: those admittedly eye-popping set pieces.
Which brings us to the real reason you'll want to see Ghost Protocol (and in IMAX, if your eyeballs can take it). Sure, the hand to hand combat scenes are choreographed with slick precision. A skin-scraping sandstorm chase will have you reaching for the eyedrops. And a bone crunching battle inside an automated parking garage is far more brutal than it sounds (if over-long and semi-boring). But marvel as Movie Star Tom Cruise grips the windows of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, doing his own insane stunts while clinging to the outside windows thousands of feet above the ground, and you get your money's worth. (Cruise insisted on pulling off the Burj Khalifa stunt himself, which offers a hypothetical window into his mindset; if he wasn't quite challenged by the material, maybe the adrenaline rush was worth signing on for? Well, that and the cash.)
Unfortunately for Bird, while he delivers stunning and often inventive visuals, not to mention some ultra cool new gadgets worth drooling over, it's producer J. J. Abrams who leaves the more indelible creative thumbprint. The slick exotic settings, the high-tech trappings, the capable spy wrestling with the crippling notion that loved ones risk becoming collateral damage -- Sydney Bristow did all of this years ago, and on TV. Granted, she didn't do any of it in glorious, dazzling IMAX. But she did it in heels! Abrams and Bad Robot partner Bryan Burk even imported former Alias writers Nemec and Applebaum and tapped Josh Holloway, continuing the bizarre convergence of the worlds of M:I and LOST, but that's a discussion of worlds colliding for another day (see: Cruise cousin William Mapother in M:I2 for a taste of the mind-reeling madness).
Then again, it could be just that kind of creative mix that gives the Mission: Impossible franchise the spark of life it desperately needed -- and still needs, if it is to go on. Between Abrams's genre instincts, Cruise-esque fearlessness, and the idea of Renner (and a slightly more engaging director, not to mention a better script) taking over in future sequels, Ghost Protocol the film illustrates exactly what Ethan Hunt learns at the end of his adventure even if it doesn't quite achieve it: People -- even top notch spies, or world class filmmakers -- need people. Beneath the usual spy games and geekery lies a barely tapped vein that, sadly, remains largely untouched: The loneliness of the spy/human experience in an isolating, gadget-filled world. Note the deliberate proliferation of telephones, cell phones, comm units, and satellite feeds throughout, connecting our heroes to one another. Ponder the imagery of Cruise's Hunt clinging to the side of a skyscraper hand outstretched, searching for a lifeline -- and finding it in the strong, capable hands of his teammates. A lone wolf is a sad wolf! But with the right team, you can make any difficult job work. At least long enough to make it to the next payday.
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