Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011)

I don’t go to the cinema often for this kind of film. Or any kind of film, really. I’m quite content with waiting half a year and purchasing a copy on DVD or Blu-ray, a copy I can watch whenever I want, which I can pause and rewind, and where I am in control of who I watch the film with. I also prefer not to be subjected to 30 minutes (!) of commercials before the film starts, which was the case here.

And while I enjoy generic action films as much as the next person, I’m not all that interested in spectacle for spectacle’s sake. If a film only works in a darkened theatre with a huge screen and surround sound, the more important qualities – like acting and screenplay – are probably nothing to write home about. So, normally I would not have watched Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol in a cinema, especially because it’s missing the extra kick of 3D and I wasn’t able to watch it in IMAX. Tom Cruise managed to rope me in for one reason only, a name: Brad Bird.

As far as I’m concerned, Brad Bird is among the greatest writer/directors working today. I’m not really comfortable with declaring ranked best-of lists, but if you put a gun to my head, I would probably tell you that Ratatouille (2007) is my favourite film of all time, and The Incredibles (2004) and The Iron Giant (1999) wouldn’t be far behind. So I really had no choice: Bird put out a movie, so I had to watch it as soon as possible, if only because every dollar the film makes is another argument in favour of giving the man carte blanche for his next project, written and directed by Bird, which is what I really want to see. I called him a writer/director for a reason.

Unsurprisingly, the screenplay for this film – a big-budget franchise entry helmed by a kinda first-time feature director – is not credited to Bird at all, not even for a rewrite. I’m sure he touched it up here and there, but the credit went to a couple of other people, none of whom have a particularly consistent track record when it comes to exceeding mediocrity. This movie doesn’t change that; the script is by far the worst thing about it. It’s not terrible, but it’s uneven, and so reliant on coincidences and luck that it strains even the very forgiving confines of the action genre. It’s good that every team member gets something to do as opposed to the one-man James Bond route, and there are elements of the film’s story I quite like – such as the fact that things tend to go wrong fairly frequently, forcing the characters to be on their toes and think of alternative solutions –, but even those moments seem a bit calculated and could easily have come across as lifeless. On the whole, there is a huge gulf between this and the works Bird (co-)wrote outright.

That said, the film works in spite of this deficiency, and very well. Partly this is because Bird always keeps the picture moving, using some crisp editing to make you forget how thin the dialogue is. But it’s also because the actors are game. Tom Cruise has to be given special mention, I suppose, if only because apparently he insisted on doing his own stunts, which is quite impressive considering some of the paces his character Ethan Hunt is put through in the movie. Acting-wise, Ethan Hunt is not a particularly challenging role, but Cruise got me to believe that Hunt is capable of both the physical and mental feats he performs in the film. Simon Pegg, returning from the third installment, is responsible for most of the comic relief and does a reasonably okay job, though some of his lines fall flat. New-to-the-franchise Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton provide the dramatic meat of the film, each playing a character with his or her own issues to sort through. These issues are conveniently wrapped up by the end of the film, but the actors portray their internal conflicts convincingly and help ground the narrative, balancing out some of the ludicrous plot elements (which aren’t quite emphasised enough to make the movie count as an affectionate parody). I also want to give a shout-out to Lost‘s Josh Holloway, who is only in the film briefly, but certainly leaves an impression.

Musically, fellow Lost alumnus Michael Giacchino is at hand as well to once again provide a driving and sometimes ethnically tinged, but not particularly innovative underscore. I like Giacchino, but his two M:I scores haven’t exactly brought out his potential. Still, they’re serviceable and do what they’re supposed to do. I want to especially commend Bird for relying on Giacchino exclusively and for avoiding, to the best of my recollection, needle-dropping annoying pop songs (the one possible exception early in the film doesn’t really count, I would say, since it’s diegetic). And his score is certainly more fun and diverse than today’s action scores usually are.

Speaking of television, the opening titles are reminiscent of those for the Mission: Impossible TV show; I suspected as much in the cinema but had to confirm it at home, because I’ve never seen a single episode of the original show. So I don’t really know how tonally faithful the movie is in its entirety and whether there are other in-jokes. What I can say is that throughout the film, it seemed like a mega-budget, extra-long episode of spy shows like Chuck and Alias. That may sound like an insult or a backhanded compliment, but I actually really like(d) both of those shows, which balanced humour, action and sentiment really well when they were at their best.

That television can, at times, achieve this level of sophistication and professionalism hasn’t helped movies, because why would you want to pay quite a bit of money for a 100 minute crime film if you get a weekly dose of equally slickly-produced procedurals beamed to your telly for free? I have long held the belief that the only way for cinema to attract an audience for the kinds of genres already present on television is to go a) bigger, b) more complex, and c) more daring. Inception (2010) would be an example of a film that did all three, and because it wasn’t a franchise entry, it could afford to have fairly complex and not necessarily likeable characters and to believably threaten to kill them off. Gone Baby Gone is in a similar boat, a procedural too unorthodox and challenging for television. Ghost Protocol is hobbled in these regards by being, essentially, episode four of a series of big-screen Mission: Impossible TV specials. Like I said: if not for Brad Bird, I would have waited for the Blu-ray (and despite my enjoyment of the film, I would have been justified in waiting).

That aside, if this movie was, like I suspect, a sort of proof-of-concept for whether Bird would be able to direct an action-heavy live-action movie, he passed the test with flying colours. Unlike some other action directors I could name (*coughMichaelBaycough*), camera movements, editing and choreography fit together so well I could always tell what was going on. You don’t need shakycam techniques to make an action scene exciting or “realistic” and you don’t need to sacrifice clarity to get the action to flow. If there’s one thing the movie delivered which Bird should get most of the credit for, then its massive set pieces. I didn’t find all of them equally engrossing, and unlike apparently many other members of the audience, I do not think the highlight of the film is the sequence in which Tom Cruise climbs the highest tower in the world (I would guess this particular scene is much more effective in IMAX, though). My personal favourite is the fight at the end, which really impressed me with how it was staged. All of these scenes were well-shot, and not one was boring. And this is the kind of stuff you couldn’t do on a television budget, so it’s good this was a movie after all.

Next up for Bird, hopefully: a personal project. I don’t really care whether it’s animated or live-action, because Bird has clearly proven he is a master of both. But it would be nice if, next time, he could be matched up with a script worthy of his talents.

Images added 2013-12-15

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