The "Mission: Impossible" franchise is a strange one.
For one thing, I think people often misuse the word "franchise." Just because they make a few sequels to a movie, that doesn't automatically qualify that thing as a franchise. I think of that more as a description of a film property (or book property or game property… whatever sort of IP you want to substitute) that features a basic idea or premise that can be endlessly refigured to fit new casts, new creative teams, and new storytelling styles, with little real regard for continuity. "Mission: Impossible," from the moment it first aired as a television show, has offered up a near-perfect franchise engine, a premise so simple, so feather-light, that you can do anything with it, and as long as you strike those same few notes, it's recognizably "Mission: Impossible."
Over the weekend, I rewatched the first three "Mission: Impossible" films on Blu-ray. I've always been fond of the first one, and looking at it now, it's one of those early CGI-era movies that reaches for some groundbreaking stuff in how action is staged and shot that doesn't totally work on a technical level, but that deserves respect for pushing the envelope as much as it did. More than that, though, it's a fun piece of pop culture subversion that was designed to acknowledge the old school, then annihilate the old school, then introduce Tom Cruise as the new school. Brian De Palma made each set piece feel like he was having fun, and it was big and complex and sleek and absolutely proved that it would work on the big screen.
The second film is so bad that it feels like someone who was very angry at John Woo decided to make a MAD-magazine-style parody of John Woo films and then release it with his name attached as director. Awful.
The third film was the first that really tried to give a continuity and a weight to Ethan Hunt as the center of the film series. The first two films are "Mission: Impossible" adventures that happen to star Ethan Hunt. The third film was all about Ethan's desire to live a normal life, to leave fieldwork behind, to marry Julia (Michelle Monahan), and to finally just wear one face, his own. There was a real sense of team in the last film, and I liked the chemistry that existed between Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Maggie Q. And, speaking of Q, the third film introduced Benji Dunn, played by Simon Pegg, who played a comic spin on Q, very much the same role that existed on "Alias." I knew as soon as I saw Pegg's two moments that he was going to get bumped up for more if they ever did a sequel. That third film is not about a global threat or terrorist, but instead about karma screwing Ethan Hunt around when he tries to put his bloodstained past behind him, and it worked for one film to focus in at Ethan instead of out at a big spy movie story.
This time out, the threat is full-blown nuclear war, worldwide, so I think it's safe to say the stakes are a little higher here.
I think "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" is the most consistently entertaining, most laser-focused entry in the series so far, and while I would argue that it is very much a sequel to the third film and not just a disconnected piece of a flexible franchise, it is also a great rollicking self-contained spy movie adventure on a grand scale, and it's preposterous fun.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Remember that scene in "The Incredibles" where they're sneaking onto Syndrome's island and taking out henchmen and dealing with the high-tech security? That sequence was like watching the Fantastic Four stepping into a '60s-era James Bond film, and it was apparent that Bird has a real love of the genre and a working knowledge of how to pay perfect tribute to it. Even so, this is his first live-action film, and he's stepping into someone else's thing, working for Tom Cruise and JJ Abrams, so I was nervous that I wouldn't see much of his personality or style in the end result. Instead, this is a pretty clear expression of Bird's voice, and there is an energy to it that feels like a whole new lease on life for the series.
You may be aware that Bird shot some of the film using the IMAX cameras, and one of the reasons I would encourage you to see the film in that format is because of the very sly way Bird uses the transition from the full IMAX frame to a more traditional widescreen frame, blowing it out to the full size for almost all of his major establishing shots moving over the vistas of cities around the world. Here, we start in Budapest, and the way the film pushes in on a rooftop in the city while in constant motion, the full IMAX frame opened to the top and the bottom, it's almost like you can fall into the frame. Right away, we're introduced to a new character in the IMF world, Trevor Hanaway (Josh Holloway), and following a short shocking action sequence with him, we cut to a prison escape that's been engineered by Benji Dunn (Pegg, returning with, as I hoped, a much larger part) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and it's not until about halfway into the sequence that you realize who it is that they're breaking out of the prison. Of course, it's Ethan Hunt, and from the moment he turns around to reveal himself to the camera, this is one of the most engaged performances from Cruise in a while. He's got the Movie Star turned up to ten here, and it's a lot of fun to watch. Say what you will about Cruise and his off-screen persona, but none of that matters to me when I'm in a theater. He is still able to push all of that aside and give one of these performances that takes full advantage of the iconic power of Being Tom Cruise.
By the time the opening sequence ends with Tom Cruise saying the line, "Light the fuse," with Michael Giacchino's riff on the beloved original theme, there is such a controlled and confident sense of cool that you know you're in good hands. Brad really knows his spy movie vocabulary, and he pulls off what none of the films have so far: he tells a good spy/action story on a narrative level, and each set piece not only works to escalate the film from one to the next, but they also work as little mini-movies in their own right, which is something he excels at.
The story here all hinges on why they broke Cruise out of prison and why he was in there in the first place. They need him for a new mission, and that new mission sets off a chain of events that may literally end Western civilization, with only Hunt, Dunn, Carter, and an IMF analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner) to stop the plans of Russian nuclear specialist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist). It's a very direct narrative, one scene propelled into the next by this constant need to catch up with these bad guys, and I like that it's as simple as it is. It allows Bird to focus on building those action scenes and just enjoying the characters, and as a result, it's a pretty great piece of high-energy entertainment.
Everything in Dubai is great. Just amazing. It is one long sequence that incorporates two of the biggest IMAX sequences and some really remarkable stunt work. But I think the Kremlin break-in is great as well. I think the entire extended climax in Mumbai is great. I think the team dynamics are great. Simon Pegg deserved the promotion in this movie, and he makes the most of it. If Jeremy Renner's being groomed for stardom in the last year or so, this is the movie where it really begins. He's great. I know I keep using that word, but I think the film really delivers in a way that is almost surprising. It's a wildly enthusiastic film, a movie that works because it is in love with the original series and the potential that is inherent to "put a team together and save the world" scenario.
Paula Patton is a badass. Who knew? I've seen her in various films and she's always struck me as very attractive but underused. Here, she is very effective because you buy the physical side of her in the action scenes. She is credible, and that's important. Cruise does so much of his work in these movies in physical terms that he needs people around him who are equally physical, and Patton lives up to the challenge.
Robert Elswit's photography is crazy-sleek, and Paul Hirsch has a sure and steady hand as an editor. If you enjoy this movie, you've got to credit them with a big part of why. Bird really does have an amazing support system on this film, and it feels like he worked hard to justify having guys like that on the payroll. If you're going to hire Robert Elswit, you have to give him something worth shooting, and Bird's got a really dynamic sense of composition and motion.
Mainly, though, it's just nice to see the Bad Robot voice collide with Brad Bird's voice and result in something that embodies the best of both. There's no doubt that this is a sequel to the last film, and it seems like the real goal of the film is to build a team that can last more than one movie. It's nice to see the way these characters reveal themselves and build connections, and Cruise seems more than happy to make room for Renner and Patton and Pegg. He's entertained by them, and they all make real contributions to the film. It's so easy when you've got a star as big as Cruise for that person to overwhelm the movie, but Bird never lets that happen. I was surprised and pleased by the way they bring back even the idea of Julia, Cruise's wife-to-be in the last movie. I also really like the way it feels like the main point of the film is to let Brad Bird beat the holy hell out of Tom Cruise in scene after scene, heaping the abuse on him. It is not a film of great depth, and it doesn't have the same rich subtext as movies like "The Iron Giant," "The Incredibles," or "Ratatouille," but it's not trying to be any of those movies. Bird's proven here that he can orchestrate mayhem with grace and style, and that he can absolutely adapt his voice to someone else's creation, and while that might not make this one of the very best films of the year, it does make it a significant one, because I get the feeling Bird's still just warming up.
And if you're curious about the "Dark Knight Rises" prologue that will be attached to this in its large-format IMAX bookings, you may want to check back here on Friday morning for more about that. Hint, hint.
Short answer? This is one mission you absolutely should choose to accept when it opens in IMAX on December 16, then everywhere else on December 21.
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