Ever since the horror of the second installment, I’ve been looking for reasons to stop watching the Mission: Impossible movies. And as I’ve described in detail, the erosion of my confidence in the franchise began even earlier. But something always keeps bringing me back. In M:I 3 it was J.J. Abrams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, with mixed, mostly unmemorable results.
For Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), the lure was Brad Bird, a director with a great animation track record (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Up) making his first foray into live action film-making. It was my hope that Bird would bring his eye for group dynamics and teamwork — so integral to The Incredibles, one of the best superhero movies ever made — to this fourth installment of the series. He does so with aplomb, and in the process he may have — with key assistance from Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg — resuscitated the franchise. This isn’t the perfect M:I movie, but I think it’s the best of the lot, and comes closest to recapturing the spirit of the original series.
The action starts in Russia, where the Impossible Missions Force — led by Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) — is tasked with preventing terrorist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) from using stolen launch codes to foment a nuclear war. The opening mission involves an elaborate heist from the Kremlin, which goes horribly wrong. The IMF is implicated and disavowed, but Hunt and the rest of his team — including new agents Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and intelligence analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) — go dark and continue the mission, which takes them on further hair-raising adventures in Dubai and India, trying to keep up with the elusive Hendricks and prevent World War III.
It’s an energetic, comic book spy adventure, filled with compelling action setpieces, clever misdirections, and — crucially — nicely executed teamwork and camaraderie among the IMFers. Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec’s script borrows liberally from the first Mission film in terms of structure: it opens with a teaser, followed by a disaster, followed by an ever-escalating sequence of episodic setpieces leading to a (sadly) muddled endgame. The best bits are in the early-going: compelling backstory set in Budapest (featuring Josh Holloway), an exciting prison breakout, the Kremlin heist, and a breathtaking gambit set in the world’s tallest building in Dubai. These sequences revive some classic IMF tradecraft — modernized, of course, but conjuring the old days for us diehards. (The optical illusions of the Kremlin hallway gambit are right out of the original series season four episode “The Falcon;” the two-floor misdirections of the Dubai scheme recall “The Double Circle,” also from season four.) Then there’s some muddy connective material joining the build-up to the finale in Mumbai, where a somewhat clumsy endgame plays out in noisy, ridiculous fashion. Unfortunately the wrap-up and denouement take the shine off the apple, but the journey is fun, and finally, finally, Mission is about team again.
Little of this can be credited to Cruise, unfortunately, whose movie star persona continues to hover over the franchise, an unwelcome albatross. He’s adequate and credible, but this character’s never been that likeable, and even here — playing well with others — Hunt doesn’t feel fully integrated into the group. The rest of the team delivers, though, especially Renner as Brandt, a fish-out-of-water with a dark past. His amusing perspective and comfortable rapport with the others provides the team’s glue. Pegg, a survivor of MI 3, sees enhanced duties and brings brilliantly timed, situationally appropriate comic relief. Patton is good but not great, her role underwritten, but she’s both fetching and formidable.
In the end, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is no masterpiece, but it’s a big, fun blockbuster, clever and entertaining, that at long last takes the “I” out of team.