Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (IMAX)

Ethan Hunt Says: Couch-Jumping Is For Amateurs!

Ethan Hunt as Tom Cruise, if you will, really, truly on the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building. 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, December 18, 2011

What do you get for an all-out, high-octane action man who does his own stunts?  You bring him a new toy to be paraded just in time for Christmas: his biggest stunt challenge.  Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, is Tom Cruise's playground in "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol", the breathtaking singular highlight of an otherwise bizarrely incoherent film.  Brad Bird's globe-trotting action drama got its head start on IMAX screens and select 2D screens on Friday in the U.S. and Canada before it bows on conventional screens in theaters on Wednesday.

In "Mission: Impossible III", a better film and one shrouded in lurid color or near jet darkness, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) cautioned Ethan Hunt (Mr. Cruise) "that there's a point where bold becomes stupid."  Stupid isn't a word in Mr. Cruise's or Ethan Hunt's vocabulary.  Both do things at full-tilt, and Mr. Bird accommodates such zeal in what is a lighter, colder, larger-scale action ballet that is blunt and brilliant.  "Ghost Protocol" may be as light and inconsequential as a non-tickling feather but it does have meat and plenty of gristle on its action bones.  Metal slams.  Cars dive into things as if consciously trying to knock themselves unconscious.  There's an end-of-the-world quality to every death-defying stunt.  Credit Mr. Bird and the remarkable stunt team for going for broke.

Early on Mr. Hunt is in a Moscow jail for murdering six men, and in true Dean Martin "ain't that a kick in the head" style he wreaks havoc in a big, busy opening scene jailbreak.  In "Ghost Protocol"'s first ten frenzied minutes chaos reigns, and IMF aka Impossible Mission Force spy agency is reduced to four members, including newcomers Paula Patton, cutting a mean, lean and sexy action damsel, and Jeremy Renner, groomed as Mr. Cruise's replacement in subsequent episodes, introduced to stunt work to get his feet wet. 

Mr. Renner's presence as an analyst is the most awkward aspect of "Ghost Protocol", whose screenplay builds a wobbly mysterious history between he and Mr. Cruise as unnecessary filler for a threadbare film when its main story grinds to a halt.  The diversions are puzzling and laughable when the action isn't the film's main focus.  As Brandt, Mr. Renner is strait-jacketed, a non-descript and uncharismatic presence juxtaposed with the smiling billion-dollar mega man Cruise.  You can bet Mr. Renner's ascension to the driver's seat in the next film will have him showing his pearly whites at every turn.  (Hopefully Mr. Renner will perform a mission on the African continent, the one place these four "Mission" films have strangely avoided, whether deliberately or otherwise.)

Despite the new film's numerous missteps, what Mr. Bird finely effectuates is the spoofing of the "Mission" series, using gadgetry more tricky and entertaining than any of the hardware James Bond has to worry his head over.  "Ghost Protocol" takes its adventures seriously but makes sure it invests time in laughing at the folly of some of them too, even as it forgets or gets lost in what it is trying to do story-wise.  Granted, no one is heading to "M:i:4" for a Paddy Chayefsky or William Goldman screenwriting master class, but at least a little story logic rather than fleeting then conveniently vanishing rationales and situational about-faces would suffice.

Paula Patton as Jane, and Simon Pegg as Benji in Brad Bird's "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol". 

Ethan Hunt has to deal with a nuisance villain (Michael Nyqvist of the original "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"), a Russian baddie who wants to blow up the world through nuclear Armageddon.  (He could have just watched the film "2012" instead.)  Codenamed Cobalt, the bad guy, whom Hunt and his team -- including Simon Pegg, who in his second more expansive "Mission" go-round steals the film with his heavy doses of comic relief -- must capture before he ends the world, has stolen a suitcase with nuclear codes in it.  Cobalt is a well-dressed-to-kill but non-snarling perpetrator, and apart from his thirst for the apocalypse he's shallow and toothless on the order of say, Mathieu Almaric in the dreadful "Quantum Of Solace".  The Kremlin, which has been bombed to smithereens and blamed on IMF, has inspired Cobalt's wrath, sparking a whole new Cold War and forcing the U.S. president to invoke Ghost Protocol, as the IMF goes all guerilla on the world on a self-vindication tour. 

As Ethan Hunt Mr. Cruise, who turns 50 next year, isn't slowing down, but in much of "Ghost Protocol" he looks like a father longing to get back home to his family.  He's jet-set the world as an IMF man, and while he never says that he's too old for this sh-t, he may well be thinking it.  Chasing paper tigers with flimsy rationales doesn't seem to spark Ethan the way it used to.  Mr. Cruise is long-haired here (as he was in "M:i:2"; crew-cut in the odd-numbered "Mission" films) and his Hunt is a more urgent, pensive figure than in John Woo's film, his emotional state on this occasion tucked away under his skin, a skin the intense Mr. Cruise looks as if he will run right out of as he tries outrunning a sandstorm in Dubai. 

All the "Mission" films have been about Mr. Cruise and a sense of his own celebrity persona and derring-do.  The references to his grinning, in prior "Mission" films, in fact in other non-action Cruise films (a cheeky sketch of Mr. Cruise by Penelope Cruz in "Vanilla Sky") is never old.  In "M:i:III" the parallels to Mr. Cruise's then-early marriage to Katie Holmes was irresistible; in "M:i:2" his scenes with Thandie Newton in a bathtub seemed designed in part to deflect the nasty rumors questioning  Mr. Cruise's sexuality (as did a scene with Noah Taylor in "Vanilla Sky".)  Mr. Cruise is an elusive figure for all we think we know about him, and there's a moment in "Ghost Protocol" where a character declares, "we all have secrets, don't we Ethan?"  Mr. Cruise never really answers the question.  The actor, give him credit, will never take a day off in his films, even if the films themselves sometimes do.  As such, this is Mr. Cruise's most lukewarm film story-wise in a while.

The problem with Mr. Bird's film is that the script by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec doesn't know how to say goodbye to Ethan.  The film wants to leave us with memories of Ethan's missions by bringing back a touch of the past, but does so in a contrived, tacked-on way with cameos and wry smiles that brought me right out of the film.  (Mr. Bird, an adept Pixar man who has directed such films as "The Incredibles", metaphorically kisses San Francisco in a nice but brief moment in the film.)  Michael Giacchino returns for a second successive "Mission" to score the music, which works even better here for the sense of grandeur the movie's action musculature throws around.

The saving grace of "Ghost Protocol" is its scale in IMAX with some of the biggest, boldest, most challenging action sequences filmed in the gigantic scope.  On such screens you float in immersive visions and feel like you will fall to your death as you are flooded Cinema 180-style with the image of Mr. Cruise holding on for dear life on the Burj Khalifa tower with no obvious CGI.  (Sure, there are safety harnesses excised but it's one heck of a tense, thrilling moment in the action sequence of the year and early century.  Though Mr. Cruise's jaunt scaling Utah's Monument Valley in "M:i:2" is as gripping.)  Ladies and gentlemen, that really is Mr. Cruise running down the tower!  A blooper reel should have been done to show Mr. Cruise running up the Burj Khalifa.

"This is not Mission: Difficult, it's Mission: Impossible, which means it should be a walk in the park for you," chided Sir Anthony Hopkins to Mr. Cruise in "M:i:2", via Robert Towne's cheeky script.  For Mr. Cruise "Ghost Protocol" is just another walk down a very tall building but for Mr. Bird it's a twisty, strange and indeed difficult journey to finally letting Ethan Hunt walk off into a vaporized pale moonlight, never to be heard from again.

With: Anil Kapoor, Lea Seydoux, Samuli Edelmann, Josh Holloway, Vladimir Mashkov, Miraj Grbic.

"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sequences of intense action and violence.  The film's running time is two hours and 13 minutes.

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