Where-as most film series tend to decline in quality with age, time has been kind to Tom Cruise and his chosen cash-cow, the Mission Impossible films. While this 2011 entry lacks Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s deliciously bored villain, no small part of why III was the best entry in the series up to that point, it’s an improvement in just about every other way. Above all, and most surprisingly, it has a sense of humility. In its treatment of its characters less as too-kewl-for-school icons and more as confused, kinda-wacky cartoon personalities defined less by their self-serious gloom than much smaller, much more affecting and endearing character moments, it finally approaches a sense of identity for a series that often seemed happy-go-lucky to ape other franchises. This is a “big” film, but it doesn’t feel “big” in the way other blockbusters do – it has a lived-in quality, less about one man doing stunts than a team struggling to get along and admit they’re enjoying themselves while doing it (although it certainly has plenty of the former as well). At times, it even mocks the self-seriousness of other blockbuster franchises, and implicitly, itself in the process. It would appear what they say about looking back on your misfortune with a smirk is true. At the least, MIIV believes it is true, and it wants us to know it too.
Perhaps this spirit is owed to the film’s troubled production, as well as the series’ history. What was initially something of a starring vehicle for Cruise now seems to be something dusted off whenever the man’s box office is floundering and he needs a safe option, something which would seem to spell disaster for the franchise. But maybe the five years between films is what the audience needs to warm to a new adventure with Ethan Hunt, and more importantly, enough time for the powers that be to realize they need to produce something of actual quality beneath the title to continue the franchise’s existence as a series to be excited about, rather than merely a cavalcade of also-rans.
With this problem in tow, in struts Brad Bird on loan from his day job as an animation maestro. When announced, many were skeptical about what directing this film could do to Bird’s career – after all, no matter how compelling and blissful a Mission Impossible movie may turn out, it’s unlikely to be the next Ratatouille. Worse, live-action success could be the nail in the coffin for his work in the field that made him famous among cinephiles (as of 2014, the jury is still out, although he has at least one live-action production on schedule for next year, Disney’s Tomorrowland). This is a valid complaint, of course, but it has very little to do with the quality of this film.
A second complaint, however, is on even less sure ground. It was commonly argued, of all things, that an animation director had no place in a big ol’ (live) action film. Yet, if we naturally assume the reason for this concern is simply that animation directors don’t often make this jump, we can rather quickly realize that fact has little to do with concern over quality. In all honesty, the things that produce a cracking entertainment of a big ol’ action film aren’t much different from those which produce exactly the kind of films Bird has a well-documented specialty in, animated family-films: a focus on the purer goods of filmmaking, namely crisp and inventive direction, staging, careful and pinpoint editing, pure craftsmanship, and a sense of whiplash charm and fun. On all accounts, a filmmaker who deals with animation, a necessarily visual medium all about framing and visual composition, seems just the ticket for what MIIV needed.
And wouldn’t you know? Bird silences all doubts here, delivering a top-notch effort that favors movement and visual finesses over dialogue, just as, in fact, many animated films do. Bird’s work is clearly that of a visual storyteller, emphasizing simple dialogue backed by top-notch kinetic wizardry and cutting on motion rather than on static shots to establish a whirlwind, always-moving feel to the film. It’s a perfect fit to a movie that’s always nimble on its feet and very much itself excited by the potential to make other people excited. Bird’s clearly enjoying himself here, and he has a time with not only the film’s rampant and lengthy action but in melding the flashier stuff to a surfeit of even more chaotic verbal sparring and nervy group camaraderie – the biggest joys of MIIV have much less to do with Tom Cruise (who charitably denounces the spotlight here) than the wit and tension between him and his group. It’s not exactly subversive stuff, but it’s a nice change of pace for a film of this sort to denounce the cult of the individual and just give us a good ol’ team once in a full moon.
That being said, Cruise is doing a better job here than he probably needs to. In recent years, more due to his off-screen antics than his on-screen ability, he’s been chastised and lampooned time and time again, and before MIIV he’d met with a few box office failures that begged questions of his relevance for a modern audience. MIIV brought him back in roaring style, and in fact, showed that he was willing to give his all even in a less-than-three-dimensional role. There’s a perhaps not-too-surprising Bourne-like tired malaise to his personhood this time around, a sense of been-there-done-that world weariness we see in his eyes and subtle mannerisms but which the film doesn’t explicitly draw out, mannerisms that sell how long he has lived with this character and how much Hunt has seen in his line of duty.
But the film flips this malaise on its head. We get the feeling that Cruise has weathered this character with age, yes, but it’s less glum despair than a feeling that every challenge at this point is accompanied with an aloof “ohhhh, not again” which Cruise expertly conveys with his eyes. It lies cheerfully perpendicular to the over-the-top nature of the film, making it seem like this is all just another part of the day, no more serious than preparing a sandwich. In addition to turning the self-seriousness of the Bourne films and the modern Bond films on their head, more than anything, this actually helps construct the off-kilter cartoony world of a series that has always seemed more like a bunch of self-contained films than a series proper.
And the film gleefully follows Cruise down this cartoon-ish rabbit hole (again, Bird the animation maestro knowing the benefit of a slight, light tone better than most live-action directors caught up in their own self-important gluttony). The film, put simply, goes for broke with cheerful abandon. This is rapid-fire, zany filmmaking at its finest, and it gives modern spy thrillers a kick in the teeth for all their serious pretensions and their being afraid to , you know, just have a character climb the tallest building in the world because, well, why not? It would be going a bit far to say this is a parody of other action films – more like a re-reading of them that strips them down to their core and cranks this up to 11– but there’s a wink-and-a-nod approach to the whole affair.
Especially in an early big action scene that mostly consists of Cruise staring at a camera and making weird hand motions, we see that Bird is having a little fun with the cast and Cruise’s image, specifically. A later highlight of the film, the Burj Khalifa scene, makes us very much aware that the filmmakers know that the whole idea of these characters actually planning something successfully is complete nonsense. The laws of action filmmaking dictate something must go wrong, and the film has fun with the idea that it’s all going to go to hell soon enough no matter what.
Ghost Protocol loses a little of its luster as it steamrolls toward its conclusion. Part of the problem may be that Bird turns things up to 11 midway through the film and then strains to keep the pace up later. The final third is more a 7, but it’s still fine in its own right (the idea of the final action scene, being set in essentially a car vending machine, is more brashly entertaining than the scene itself, admittedly). The rest of the film though is a genuine aching grin, a proper “good time at the movies” when that phrase seemed to have been lost long ago. Edited and shot for maximum impact, you feel the anxiety and vertigo of its main characters, the reckless abandon of their actions, and the pure energy and fun of seeing how they’ll get out of it all in equal measure. Mission Impossible : Ghost Protocol pretty much plays one note for over two hours, which is a little too long, but it plays the hell out of that note, smashes it, bangs it, picks up the piano and throws it around, and generally has its way with it.