To date each Mission Impossible instalment has differed slightly in tone. The original was a disciple of the TV series – it had a single, ridiculously impossible problem - and it’s goal was tension first, action second. With a playful helicopter in tunnel finish of course. The first sequel began the transition to action film, upping the spectacle, locations and world threat levels, but traded off Brian De Palma’s juicy IMF character relationships as a result. The third film, this time by JJ Abrams and to date IMF’s lowest box-office despite having some of the franchise’s best moments – retained the action but began to strip the missions bare. In fact “impossibleness” and macguffins (the “Rabbits Foot”) no longer mattered: to Abrams' Mission Impossible 3 was to be a personal tale of one man threatening Ethan’s wife and Ethan in full on, loved up rescue mode. However there was still plenty of action and rubber masks sewn in.
If it is hard to place Ghost Protocol, it’s probably as it has elements of all three predecessors. There is no real engaging with the characters and franchise history – until the end – but it is stripped down with plenty of action and impossible stuff to do. And naturally Cruise and Co are the guys to do it. 5 years after JJ Abrams’ – whose box office Ghost Protocol has already surpassed after just 3 weeks – and 15 years after Brian De Palma and Emmanuelle Beart, how does MI4 – and the 49 year old Mr Cruise – fare?
If Ghost Protocol was an ad for wood stain, it would sell shelves of it. It’s a Christmas big ticket action thriller … and it does what it says on the tin. There are chases, races, and old and new faces, plus the world at stake from a stolen nuclear crisis.. Ghost Protocol – directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles) - aims squarely at trying to recapture some of the old-school impossible feel of the 1995 original by making Cruise and co go old school themselves, boiling off the team’s support and paring their options to the bone.
A bone that happens to have a techno-train, a flash car, electro-gloves, laptops galore and a generous book of flight coupons folded into its marrow-jelly-bit.
Top of the scrap list are the convenient to-get-out-of-any-corner guess-who masks, which Bird obviously considered as diluting the impossible, but still humourously references on several occasions. However the main isolation is triggered by a Kremlin bombing designed to make the IMF look responsible, and the entire agency being disavowed. All that is left is Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner (Hurt Locker) as a government analyst with an agency past, Simon Pegg - who has passed his field exam apparently - and Paula Patton (Hitch, Precious) to take on the recovery of stolen nuclear launch codes by a scientist and a beautiful assassin who has killed a former IMF team member.
Quite what happens to the rest of the disavowed IMF headquarters and teams is unknown.
The rate of action and location churn initially risks giving Ghost Protocol an all action and little substance problem a la Quantum of Solace, but Bird brings it back in the second half and epilogue to make it disposable but entertaining viewing. Particularly as Ghost Protocol never takes itself too seriously. True to MI tradition, there are tense sequences involving climbing, this time the tallest building in the world in Dubai, and lots of Tom Cruise limb-wheeling after bad guys. Like Salt back in 2010 (a film initially written for Tom Cruise) Ghost Protocol does suffer for having nuclear war as the potential doom, ruining some of the tension (sometimes smaller is better) but the threat-you-know-won’t-actually happen is stretched out by the writers to keep the audience on edge as much as possible. More annoying is the fact that – having usually done so much hard, nay impossible, IMF wizardry to track the bad guy down, Cruise can’t seal the deal or just knock him out cold without a protracted set piece. It’s not annoying from a spectacle standpoint, he is chasing an old political scientist with a briefcase, and should be able to handle that in an instant - not 5 minutes plus.
Tom Cruise resumes Ethan Hunt with ease – his character apparently mourning the death of his wife between films – while Renner and Patton’s back stories bring tension with thin but manageable ideas of remorse and revenge. Most of the comic levity is donated Pegg, which he naturally handles with aplomb. And if Ghost Protocol seems to sweep aside JJ Abrams' previous film, Bird brings it back together in the epilogue. This is a surprising touch, and the deepest, almost moving section of the film.
With all the chase romp in the middle, this well-pitched finish gives the second half a more satisfying resonance than the first hour, which may contain some seat-shifting before it hits its stride.
Its no masterpiece and is certainly disposable cinema, but Bird’s goal seems to be to make it entertainingly disposable cinema, so it is hard to begrudge. And in a time of year when the Award-seeking films come out to hog the merry-go-round, MI4:GP gives action fans something to see. It is far from perfect, but you can eat popcorn to it.
And it is better than the Sherlock Holmes sequel.