Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Michael Nyqvist, Léa Seydoux, Tom WilkinsonRating: PG-13, for intense action and violence
Four films into this series, and we finally get a director/writing team willing to acknowledge the classic TV show’s longtime viewers, while still delivering the improbably ferocious, stunt-laden action that star/producer Tom Cruise loves so much.
In fairness, 1996’s first entry is a solid thriller, although fans were enraged — and justifiably so — by the storyline’s deplorable treatment of Jon Voight’s Jim Phelps, so honorably played by Peter Graves in the TV series.
Installments two and three also had their moments, although their plots were muddy and Cruise’s Ethan Hunt dominated both to an eyebrow-raising degree. The frequently egomaniacal star apparently forgot the whole concept behind Bruce Geller’s original series — that every caper is a team effort — in a desire to showcase himself at all times. This is “Mission: Impossible,” not some lone-wolf Jason Bourne clone.
Happily, director Brad Bird and writers Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec understand the distinction. Both Appelbaum and Nemec served as writers and producers on television’s “Alias,” a series very much in the mold of Geller’s ensemble cast approach to “Mission: Impossible,” which nonetheless showcased a core star (Jennifer Garner).
Bird also has action-saga cred in his background, although in the quite different world of animation. “The Incredibles” is laden with subterfuge and spy-type capers, albeit with a superhero twist; perhaps the most impressive aspect of “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” is the apparent ease with which Bird has transitioned to live-action directing.
In a word, this puppy moves. Bird deftly orchestrates a well-paced blend of exposition, back story and pell-mell action sequences, each one choreographed with increasing snap by Academy Award-winning editor Paul Hirsch (for the first “Star Wars,” back in 1977).
Although this film’s most visually impressive — and impressively perilous — sequence is Cruise’s exterior climb of Dubai’s cloud-scraping Burj Khalifa, don’t assume that things will quiet down after this bit of cinematic legerdemain. Appelbaum, Nemec and stunt coordinator Gregg Smrz have one more audacious skirmish up their sleeves, wisely saved for the third-act climax: a brutal, body-slamming melee in a setting that must be seen to be believed.
The story kicks off as Impossible Missions Force operatives Jane Carter (Paula Patton), Trevor Hanaway (Josh Holloway) and tech genius Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) are given a simple assignment: to intercept a courier carrying Russian nuclear launch codes. Unfortunately, they’re not the only team in the field; things go awry, and the codes wind up in the hands of sultry assassin Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux, at her pouty best).
Hunt, meanwhile, has been languishing in a Moscow prison for reasons that remain unspecified; vague hints suggest that he went rogue, but that could be office scuttlebutt. At any rate, an IMF handler (Tom Wilkinson) and his aide, William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), order Hunt extracted for a new team assignment: to break into the Kremlin in order to learn more about a man code-named Cobalt, who was the intended recipient of the launch codes.
This assignment also goes spectacularly wrong, when a massive explosion rocks Red Square and destroys a major chunk of the Kremlin. The team is fragmented, Hunt is captured by Russian police, and the worst has come to pass.
With Hunt and fellow deep-cover spooks blamed for the explosion, the U.S. president invokes “ghost protocol” and disbands the entire agency. Escaping from the Russian police is no big deal — giving Cruise a chance to flex his well-honed pecs in the process — but now Hunt is left with the remnants of a team he didn’t personally assemble, and challenges that truly do seem impossible.
Bad enough that he needs to clear the IMF’s tarnished reputation; the worst part is that Cobalt — quickly revealed as Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) — seems hell-bent on nuclear annihilation, out of the misguided belief that such a “cleansing” would improve the surviving human race … much the way, for example, the 14th century “black death” pandemic toughed up our gene pool.
Now, that is a villain who is truly, seriously bonkers.
Brandt seems to be Hunt’s biggest liability: a desk-bound analyst wholly unfamiliar with field work, and too reflexively concerned with by-the-book protocol in a situation that demands impulsive creativity. Renner brings considerable emotional power to this role; the tightly wound Brandt frequently challenges Hunt or merely wants to know why a particular decision is being made.
Then, too, there’s something haunted about Brandt’s interactions with Hunt: some core discomfort clearly eating at this desk jockey.
Patton’s Carter is a bodacious bad-ass very much in the mold of Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow: a well-toned woman adept at both hand-to-hand combat and filling out a slinky dress for the story’s obligatory high-tone cocktail party scene.
Pegg, returning from the series’ previous entry, once again plays Dunn for mild comic relief. This crackerjack IT wizard also has moved beyond his comfort zone, having graduated to field agent just in time for this balls-up catastrophe. Even so, Dunn gets all the best lines — often self-mocking — and Pegg delivers them with his usual impeccable timing.
Nyqvist, well remembered as Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” film trilogy, is chillingly effective as a sociopath whose mindset hearkens back to warped, Cold War-era logic.
Which brings us to Cruise, who’d probably like to be acknowledged for bringing some dramatic tension to Hunt’s predicament here, but who deserves far more praise for being in such impressive shape for a guy just this side of 50. Say what you will about Cruise’s increasingly irritating off-screen antics; he pours heart, soul and endless hours of exercise into these films. (And my, but he loves to sprint!)
Michael Giacchino contributes a slick, action-oriented score with plenty of snap; he also finds ample excuses to reference Lalo Schifrin’s iconic “Mission: Impossible” theme, most notably during title credits that quite cleverly honor the TV show’s “match to fuse” gimmick.
This is, in short, well-crafted Hollywood product: an action epic fine-tuned to the nanosecond. (And it looks — and sounds — even better on a giant IMAX screen.) While the broad strokes are wholly predictable — all-out nuclear war hardly seems a likely option — Bird, Appelbaum, Nemec and Cruise nonetheless generate plenty of suspense.
And for that, they deserve plenty of credit.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com