Sunday, December 18, 2011



- If there's one big takeaway from the new MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, it's this: Brad Bird is one hell of an action director, and he's made the leap from animation to live-action seamlessly and impressively. This is a guy that can clearly handle huge-scale action-adventure and do so with a potent mix of modern slickness and old-school grandeur. It's been a while since I've seen an action movie that really wowed me with the sheer awesomeness of its stunt-work, and MI4 is often breathtaking in that regard - especially on an IMAX screen. All in all, this is a super-solid action flick, with a great cast and a lot of fun set pieces. It's not a movie with any sort of mind-blowing plot or ultra-high intensity, but as a visually-stunning popcorn flick, it's aces.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol finds Ethan Hunt and his team on the hunt for a rogue villain known as Cobalt - a man who feels it is his duty to cause a new extinction event by instigating nuclear war. To do that, he's commandeered Russian nuclear launch codes, and is planning an elaborate series of incidents engineered to re-escalate old hostilities between the US and Russia. The endgame, of course, is to spark an all-out nuclear war that would "thin the herd" of humanity.

So yes, the plot, and much of the movie for that matter, is fairly implausible. But the movie is well-paced and so action-packed that it never really pauses to dwell on the politics of it all. Instead, the thrust here is how Ethan Hunt must learn to work with his makeshift squad of IMF agents, who - after being framed for an attack on the Kremlin - are now working under "ghost protocol" - aka, they've gone dark and officially, they don't exist. Hunt (Tom Cruise) must re-team with his old tech-guy, Benji (the always-great Simon Pegg), as well as with new team addition Jane (the formidable - and curvaceous - Paula Patton), and agent-turned-analyst-turned-agent-again, Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Brandt has a somewhat mysterious past with Ethan, and that's a source of tension throughout the film. But the other thing with Brandt is that he's got to re-learn how to kick ass in the field after trading in his guns for a suit-and-tie.

As far as action-movie chemistry goes, this is one hell of a team of actors that's been assembled. Tom Cruise brings his blockbuster A-game, attacking every scene and action-sequence with total intensity. Cruise infuses the film with a sense of nonstop momentum, and believably fashions Ethan Hunt as a guy who won't stop moving, attacking, chasing, or fighting until his last breath. Pegg is always perfect as a source of comic relief, and he gets off some good lines and is, as always, a scene stealer. And Paula Patton seems so at home here that it seems crazy that she hasn't been in more action films. She effortlessly kicks ass, takes names, and looks good doing it, and feels totally credible as a badass agent of the Impossible Mission Force. Jeremy Renner, of course, has very quickly become a top action star - always intense, charismatic, and with a level of psychological edge that makes him fun to watch. In this one, Renner gets to tackle some more humorous scenes as well, and he impresses with how well he adapts to the movie's lighter tone.

All that being said though, I do feel like the movie coasts a bit on the strength of these actors. I am a huge fan of all of these guys as action-movie stars, but as for the *characters* they play? I have to admit, most of these characters are pretty forgettable. Ethan Hunt has always been somewhat of a cypher - he's intense and driven, but beyond that, I don't know that he's ever had much of a personality or backstory. There's some story in this film having to do with his wife, but honestly, I'd forgotten that the character even had a wife. Patton's Jane, Pegg's Benji - neither one really has much depth for us to sink our teeth into. And Brandt - though Renner does a great job - also comes off as sort of a blank slate. Like, maybe it was just driven by the presence of 24's Anil Kapoor as a wealthy Indian playboy, but I kept wondering what this movie would be like if an iconic hero like, say, Jack Bauer was driving the action. Similarly, as a villain, I found Cobalt a bit lacking - his motives were suitably sinister, but he was also pretty bland as a Big Bad. One other thing that nagged at me a little: the fact that some awesome actors like Lost's Josh Halloway and the great Tom Wilkinson showed up for what amounted to just brief cameos. I think fans of Lost have been waiting a while to see what Halloway could do in a huge action film like this one, so it's too bad he plays such a small role. And Wilkinson - as the head of IMF, The Secretary - does little beyond utter the classic "... your mission, should you choose to accept it ..." line. Overall, what little characterization is given to us isn't anything all that interesting - there's just enough bits and pieces to give the characters something to talk about other than the particulars of their mission.

So the characters are pretty thin, and the plot a little convoluted and implausible ... but again, the reason to check this one out is the positively awesome action. Brad Bird steers the action from Russia to Dubai to India, and in each location there are one or two big highlights. Three or four of the big set-pieces in the film are just phenomenally done. The big showpiece is, of course, a crazy-ass scene in which Tom Cruise scales the sheer metallic side of the world's tallest building in Dubai, clinging to its side via a pair of experimental gecko-gloves that threaten to malfunction at any moment. The sense of size, scale, and vertigo-inducing height in this scene is incredible, and credit goes to Bird for shooting it so elegantly. And speaking of those gecko-gloves, MI4 uses gadgets and near-future tech in an often brilliant manner, with some of the coolest and most fun gadget geek-out moments I've seen in the movies in a while. Sure, the plot may at times feel implausible, but the gadgets all actually feel very plausible, and there's a huge gee-whiz factor at play here. One ultra-cool scene in which Cruise and Peg utilize a sheet-thin projection screen to play optical tricks on a guard at the Kremlin is fairly jaw-dropping, for example.

This is one that will be remembered for its stunning action. It's a nice return to giant-sized blockbuster films for Tom Cruise, and also firmly establishes Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton - I think - as mainstream action stars. Even more so, it announces that Brad Bird is the real deal when it comes to live-action action. I don't think there's enough depth here to push the film from the level of very good to great, but I do think there's plenty of reasons to run out and see this on the biggest big screen possible.

My Grade: B+

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