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Film Review: Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011: Directed by Brad Bird)

Honestly, I’m here for one reason: Phillip Bradley Bird, director of recent American animation classics The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, as well as a visual consultant for The Simpsons‘ Golden Age, making his debut behind the camera of a live-action blockbuster. I could care less about the narrative continuation of Tom Cruise’s international espionage franchise, or the continuation of Tom Cruise, for that matter (dude is 50 years old this year and is due to begin acting his age, elevated Thetan levels or not). The appeal of Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol lies in discovering how Bird’s wit and flair translate to a non-animated cinematic form (although considering the preponderence of CGI in post-millenial Hollywood pictures, the formerly-firm line between animated and live-action features is now a bit hazier).

What’s most worth knowing about Ghost Protocol is that Brad Bird does not disappoint, and indeed succeeds wildly. His action sequences are absolute marvels, models of the form, rhythm and flow, pure cinema. It’s worth recalling, when considering his evident enthusiasm for the cloak-and-dagger derring-do of the classics of the spy genre, the clever scenes of Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl infiltrating the villain’s island compound in The Incredibles. Imagine that, only with Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg (the returning comic relief from the last installment, directed by JJ Abrams, who produces this time around) penetrating the secure inner sanctum of the Kremlin. Which Bird then proceeds to blow up, precipitating Cold War-level tensions between the U.S. and Russia and the general atmosphere of high-stakes covert ops that mark the peak era of the genre.

The plot is boilerplate espionage stuff, with a Swedish supergenius nuclear strategist (Michael Nyqvist) plotting to ignite a nuclear conflagration, evidently to bring about a post-apocalyptic peace (the ever-virulent Adrian Veidt Syndrome manifests itself again), and Cruise’s IMF agent Ethan Hunt and his cobbled-together team going off-grid and unsanctioned to stop him. Having missed the two subsequent episodes of this series since Brian DePalma’s stylish but head-scratching kick-off in 1996, I didn’t see the significance of Cruise’s film-opening incarceration in a Russian prison nor of the sketched-in backstory of his wife being abducted and killed by malevolent Serbians (are there any other kind of European in these sorts of movies?). It does allow for an awkward, squirmy closing scene in which Cruise attempts to approximate human emotion, but Bird is canny in recognizing that this is not his strength as an actor, or rather as an onscreen being.

Playing a ruthless, hyper-trained spy and action-hero killer is the perfect gig for Cruise, in Ghost Protocol more than in any other film he’s tackled of that type. A performer of obsessive self-involvement, he is most effective when he fights against others and takes from them (be it key information, nuclear launch codes, or even lives), because he can give nothing, share nothing onscreen. Cruise is in his own world in every one of his movies, and Bird, like every smart director the star has worked with (I’m thinking of P.T. Anderson especially, who cast him as an elaborate human satire of his forced masculine image in Magnolia), finds a sly way to reference this. He hangs his star from magnetic gloves on the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the newly-minted tallest building in the world, a solitary fly-on-the-wall figure above a manufactured metropolis in the middle of an uninhabitable desert. Bird even follows this sequence with a disorienting foot and car chase through the city’s streets and freeways in a blinding sandstorm in which Cruise’s famous mug is swathed in Arabian cloth, a makeshift burka. The movie star is literally de-faced, becoming a literal action figure in another of Bird’s fantasies of physical motion.

And what fantasies! Bird’s animation work mixed human soul and thematic intelligence with a chain-reaction visual sense that was no less exhilirating for his prodigious precision. If the script of Ghost Protocol (by Andre Nemec and Josh Applebaum) largely deprives him of the first two elements, it leaves him plenty of room to demonstrate his mastery over the third. Like all great directors of action (and there are relatively few), Bird gives us motion without commotion, physical confrontations like brutal, contentious dances, pursuits that morph before astonished eyes from one location or form into another, seamless transitions from background to foreground and back. Considering Bird’s near-mathematical manipulation of moving objects, it’s none too surprising that he sets the climatic dust-up in Mumbai between Hunt and his Swedish nemesis in one of those new-fangled stacked parking garages which shifts parked cars back and forth on moving platforms like a three-dimensional game of Connect 4.

What Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol lacks in generic invention or compelling performances (it does have the always-interesting Jeremy Renner in a dry run for his upcoming gig as the new Jason Bourne, but not much else), it therefore more than makes up for with a fascinating, fantastic vision of precision. While I’d much prefer for Brad Bird to be given the full box of paints for a movie like this and thoroughly re-invent the whole genre, even under the limitations imposed on him, the director triumphs. Perhaps the film’s success as entertainment and as commercial product (it made nearly $700 million at the box office) will grant Brad Bird that opportunity for a blank canvas. In the meantime, we’ll at least have its multiple sequences of the master at play to savour.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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