After Mission: Impossible 3‘s straight-faced, character-driven approach made a messy attempt at returning the series to the first movie‘s cereberal roots, Ghost Protocol seems a natural companion piece to Mission: Impossible II. For one thing, Ethan’s hair has grown long again, while the movie adopts the same all bombast, all the time style which John Woo made so intolerable through endless empty flourishes and Robert Towne’s lousy screenplay. If M:I3 was a lesser imitiation of the original, though, Ghost Protocol director Brad Bird takes the philosophy of M:I II and makes the movie that movie should have been. There’s no nonsense about Scottish doppelgangers, disquisitions about heroes and villains or ridiculous showboating here. Instead, the fourth entry in the series has nothing more on its mind than delivering two hours of relentless entertainment. It succeeds admirably.
Perhaps the most telling difference between this and M:I II is that where Woo’s movie came across as an extended Tom Cruise ego trip, Ghost Protocol delights in how much physical damage it can inflict on its star. Bird turns Hunt into Wile E. Coyote, a figure whose absence of personality matters not in the slightest when the real pleasure is watching him get pulverised on a semi-regular basis. This in turn makes him quite a bit more likeable than the two previous movies, if only because his sheer persistence in the face of constant physical trauma becomes amusingly, morbidly admirable. Rarely has even the boldest action movie climax been so unashamedly Looney Tunes-esque as the ridiculous showdown in a high-tech car park, culminating in Hunt driving a car down a straight drop of several floors to the concrete ground.
The plot is so thin as to barely exist. The IMF team is framed and disavowed following the destruction of the Kremlin, for which responsibility lies with Kurt Hendricks, a man determined to start a nuclear war for reasons no-one can entirely fathom. Hendricks barely appears at all, to the extent I’d mostly forgotten there even was a main villain for most of the movie’s running time. Bird uses plot as little more than a loose framework around which to build a set-piece delivery machine, churning out one action sequence after another with little interest in developing the narrative in any meaningful way. Where that might be problematic in lesser hands, Bird shoots each sequence with such freewheeling energy that it’s a joy just to be taken along for the ride. Making his live action directorial debut off the back of Pixar’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille, there’s a clear cartoonish influence on the way he gleefully abandons reality in search of squeezing every drop of entertainment and comedy value out of each frame.
The Burj Khalifa sequence, the apex of the series’ love of vertical action, is the most thrilling of the lot and among the most astounding movie set-pieces of the decade so far. Benefiting enormously from Cruise’s devotion to performing every stunt himself, Bird delights in evoking the vertiginous heights Hunt is manoeuvering above. Having Hunt climb the side of the world’s tallest building isn’t enough, of course, so the movie throws in a number of terrific visual gags surrounding his malfunctioning adhesive gloves and a variant on the fulcrum technique used for a skyscraper break-in in the last movie, here employed in an insane attempt at returning to the hotel room from whence he came and naturally faceplanting a window on the way. Anyone who missed seeing it in IMAX should be kicking themselves, but it is shot so well as to work almost as effectively on the small screen. After the overblown blue-and-oranges of M:I3, Robert Elswit’s cinematography puts a strong emphasis on bringing out the colour and vibrancy of each location. Ghost Protocol is frequently gorgeous to look at and captures the distinctive identity of each destination in a way Woo and Abrams so comprehensively failed at.
What anchors the movie is the strongest team dynamic of the series to date. Simon Pegg returns from M:I3 and is given far greater prominence as the movie’s comic relief gadget maestro. With Ving Rhames’ stalwart Luther held back until a cameo at the end, Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton are the newcomers making up the rest of the team. Renner is wonderful as Brandt, a grumpier, more reluctant version of the Ethan Hunt from the first movie and something approaching a voice of sanity in a world gone utterly bananas. His chemistry with Pegg and Cruise is immediately endearing, even if his links to Hunt’s past feel a little shoehorned in. Paula Patton’s Jane Carter gets a slither of backstory, immediately making her the series’ best developed female character. While Patton isn’t an especially strong actress, she looks believeable tough – her kicking off her heels before going into battle is a small, badass wonder – and rocks a cocktail dress to brain-melting levels of hotness.
The movie’s approach to continuity is interesting, although not altogether successful. The reveal that Brandt was on the security detail assigned to protect Hunt’s wife, Julie, when she was ostensibly killed just sort of sits there, serving little purpose until a faintly sweet coda in the final scene. The question of what actually happened to her is brought up a number of times and drags the pace down each time. I appreciate the movie not simply ignoring its predecessor’s potentially difficult resolution, but a shorter, sharper explanation would have been more than sufficient. A callback to the manner in which Hunt is taken to see Max in the first movie is a fun if nonsensical nod, but can’t help but feel disappointing when the imperious Vanessa Redgrave fails to turn up. That Hunt instead turns out to be making a call to the man he freed from a Russian prison (to the tune of ‘Ain’t That A Kick In The Head’, no less) in the first act pays off that foreshadowing reasonably well, but if you’re going to tease one of the series’ most vivid characters, you’d damn well better deliver. Much better is how the movie’s final line is used to slyly set up the events of Rogue Nation, which will have a hell of a job on its hands if it’s to raise the bar on Ghost Protocol‘s stupendous action extravaganza.