Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

"Mission: Incredibles"
"I'm Spit-Balling—It's Not All Going to be Gold"

The first Mission: Impossible film (based on Bruce Geller's TV series) was darned good—script tinkered by Robert Towne, nice set-pieces by Brian De Palma—while the second, not so much, a Woo-fest where star-egos and director-eccentricities clashed—and the third, directed by J.J. Abrams, a slight improvement, more gritty and down-to-Earth if nothing to really write home about.

The fourth, numerically neutral and titled Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, is actually the best of the bunch, much more in keeping with the original series' intent: a team of operatives plan out an unlikely spy-mission, fading into the wood-work, disguised and deceptive, insert themselves into scenarios that inevitably go wrong at some point, and they have to punt in order to get out alive and successful.  The big problem with the movie series (and its chief departure from its small-screen inspiration) is that Tom Cruise is the star and everybody takes second-seat to him, the other members of the team being merely escort planes to the Big Cruise Missile.  His character, Ethan Hunt, is supposed to be something of a cypher—all the IMF agents are—but more attention is paid to his character, while not really defining who he is, and as a result, you don't really care what happens to him.  There are no character peccadilloes or habits that one can relate to or identify as such, and what there is—no vodka martinis, but he always favors a celebratory beer at the end—is rather pedestrian.  So the movies are this weird yin-yang of Big Star/Small Character that crowds everybody else out.  The stunts are the stars.

That changes here.  Even though it is a "Tom Cruise Production" (executive-produced by J.J. Abrams), MI:GP is very much a team effort, with nice strong characters in the group (Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner) who are thrown together from a previous mission that goes "somewhat" awry and leads the President to invoke "the ghost protocol:" The IMF is entirely "disavowed" and The Secretary (there's been one each movie—Henry Czerny, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne, and this time Tom Wilkinson, the job must be the least secure in Washington D.C.) arranges for the closest team—Hunt's—to carry out a risky mission as they're already privy to inside information, and they're already deeply implicated in what has happened—which could see the resurgence in Cold War rivalries that will accelerate to nuclear-hot mighty fast.

So, it's just the four agents against the world, on a tight timeline and even tighter high-wire act to prevent terrorists from striking the match to the series' signature fuse.  And the nice thing is, it's not Cruise's show alone, it can't be, and Renner, Patton and Pegg are strong enough personalities, that Cruise doesn't even have to generously step out of the limelight for themIt is a team effort, finally, the way the series was initially envisioned.  And the writers and director have set up some nifty clockwork scenarios that nicely merge into each other to create a steady stream of nifty sequences that make you stop and say..."Huh...Haven't seen that one before."

A lot of the credit should go to director Brad Bird, former animator and Pixar grad (he made The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and did the "save" on Ratatouille), who keeps things elegantly focused, tightly synced, and throws in more than a dash of surprising absurdism throughout the film.  Yeah, a lot of it's over-the-top—that's kind of the way it is with the MI films—but there is no stoic acceptance of the risks this time.  In fact, there's a bit of slap-dashery to the whole thing—everything that can go wrong does—the timelines, the tech and the teamwork, and the four are left scrambling trying to pick up the pieces.  Along the way there are nice little touches, like the comic bend given to the usual "this message will self-destruct in five seconds" bit, or an extended sequence of guard-fooling that wouldn't seem out of place in a "Roadrunner" cartoon.  Even the big set-piece—Hunt in Dubai having to spider-man up the glass face of the world's tallest building ("eleven stories up and seven over") is played for grins, albeit with the teeth chatteringThere is no Cruise brio in evidence for the stunt, his character doesn't want to do it, but he's the only one who can and...the clock's ticking.  That Bird milks it for all the tension it's worth and manages to make it pay off spectacularly and...with humor...shows he owes more to Buster Keaton than to typical action-directors who take this stuff so deadly seriously (credibility issues).

Credibility is the least of the concerns for the director of The Incredibles.  Instead, he and the MI team have provided a spy-romp that aims to be a thrill-ride that leaves one chuckling.  In that case, mission accomplished.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a Matinee.

No comments: