Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, 2011.
Directed by Brad Bird.
Starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Michael Nyqvist, Anil Kapoor, Vladimir Mashkov and Josh Holloway.
Ethan Hunt and his new team have a new mission, if they chose to accept it. Russia’s nuclear launch codes have fallen into the wrong hands.
I was a bit late arriving for Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. I never usually buy concessions at the cinema, it being an expensive habit and all, but I had a voucher for one large popcorn and two large drinks (World of Cine’s recompense for an hour and a half of ruined audio in True Grit). “You only want one drink?” the lady asked me as stood there willing for her to hurry up. “There’s only one of me today,” I replied dejectedly, as is the loneliness of the long distance film reviewer.
Ghost Protocol quickly does away with any such agitations you might have brought with you into the cinema. The film opens on Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) breakout from a Russian prison, orchestrated by Jane (Paula Patton) and Benji (Simon Pegg). Before you can catch your breath, the film explodes into its incredibly entertaining opening credits. The camera follows a lit fuse as it burns along the wire, actors’ names and production credits flying past the screen as it does, with – get this – brief shots of scenes from later in the film, like a car falling into a river, or Ethan Hunt attached to the side of the world’s largest building. Who does that anymore!?
His previous directing credits are Ratatouille, The Incredibles and The Iron Giant – all animated films. Ghost Protocol is his first live action piece, but some parts play like more adult scenes from The Incredibles. The opening credits sequence is the best example, it sharing the similarly sincere, yet tongue-in-cheek homage to the overblown opening titles of James Bond. Michael Giacchino’s (posing a Lost-reunion of sorts with Josh Holloway [Sawyer] who has a cameo near the beginning) brassy score furthers the bond. The Mission: Impossible franchise grounds itself in the absurd, which is probably the best environment to make one’s transition from animation to live-action.
The other great gift Bird brings is spatial continuity. Each action sequence is masterfully crafted, keeping a kinetic pace while remaining comprehensible. Even in an epic sand storm in Dubai, where the camera can see barely a foot before it, the action still makes more internal sense than any in Transformers, The Dark Knight or the Bourne films – and what better quality to judge an action film on than its action? Surely not narrative.
Looking for plot originality in action films where the world is at stake can often feel redundant. Ghost Protocol follows Ethan Hunt and his team’s pursuit of Cobalt, an ex-nuclear strategist who will soon have the launch codes for Russia’s arsenal. He wants to blow up the world (don’t they all?)
But the narrative is more of a necessity rather than a centrepiece. Instead, Hunt and his team’s characters are given more space to interact and develop. After the exhilarating opening jailbreak, Ethan accepts his next mission, due to start in four hours. “Ha, I thought you said ‘The Kremlin,’” remarks Benji. “Ha, I said ‘I thought you said The Kremlin,’” he repeats. Ethan remains silent, his mind whirring away of how best to break into the Russian fortress. In four hours.
Thankfully, the film prioritises these action scenes over a potential romantic subplot between Hunt and Jane (Paula Patton), the only woman on the team. A lesser film would have fudged one in, because, you know, how could they possibly create suspense without the hero’s love interest being in danger. Sometimes the world truly is enough. Instead, the emotional poignancy is allowed to foster amongst the team.
And this is done during the action sequences rather than the brief fillers between them. Ghost Protocol has four major sequences like this; the opening prison escape; the subsequent infiltration of the Kremlin; an incredible sequence in Dubai, mainly in (off) the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest manmade structure; and finally in India, from where Cobalt plans to access a defunct Soviet military satellite. Each scene splits the team into their parallel tasks. The concluding sequence in India, for instance, has Benji and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) attempting to hack the satellite, whilst Jane seduces its playboy owner. The film cross cuts between the simultaneous espionage missions, increasing the tension and intrigue.
The gadgets they use to do so might be far-fetched, but Bird takes great care in explaining how they work, and they don’t suffer from the same Sonic-Screwdriver syndrome (lazy plot device that allows person-in-danger to escape or fix most perilous situations) as Mission: Impossible’s previous instalment. A single shot of Benji showing how a pair of adhesive gloves work – “Blue is glue.” “And red?” “Dead.” – is invaluable in making the mind accept such unbelievable gadgets. Again, Bird’s visual approach to storytelling translates perfectly to the Mission: Impossible ethos.
But best of all, the gadgets frequently fail or fall short. The team are constantly forced to retreat to their instincts or ingenuity. The fire hose isn’t long enough to stretch from the 110th floor to the 99th of the world’s tallest building. Ethan has to improvise. It makes their feats both more compelling and impressive.
Funny and with four great action sequences, Ghost Protocol is a very good movie. It’s a sexy one too. It has sexy people in. Well, bar Pegg. Not that he isn’t sexy, more that he becomes strangely asexual in action films of this ilk. Ironic, considering he wrote a three-and-a-half thousand word essay on how C3PO was an emasculated homosexual. “Because he’s very camp, but he was safe because he didn’t have a willy.”
Jack Warner used to judge how successful a film would be by how many times he visited the toilet during its screening. This led to his proclamation that Bonnie and Clyde was a “three pee picture”.
My bladder is made of steelier stuff (unless full of liquor), so I judge a film’s absorption by how many times I shift in my seat – crossing legs, folding one underneath the other, leaning on the armrest, etc. This is more for movies rather than films. I doubt Abbas Kiarostami (most pretentious name in my head at the time of writing) wants you to be comfortable while watching his work.
As Ghost Protocol ended, I found myself in the exact same position as when I started. The only difference was that my chest, lap and immediate surrounding area was covered in the free-popcorn pieces that had missed my mouth and made me late in the first place. I had forgotten I was late. I had forgotten I was even eating popcorn. And that’s why Ghost Protocol is the best action film of the year.
365 Days, 100 Films