With his live action debut, director Brad Bird cements his status as one of our leading storytellers in film right now. Not only is Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol the best entry of the series, it’s one of the finer big budget action spectacles this year. Its imperfections are lessoned by a gorgeous, sleek sheen made all the more incredible when viewed on the grandeur of an IMAX screen. It’s also a return to form of sorts for Tom Cruise, who proves he can still be an enthralling movie star – a dying commodity in an era where franchises and brand recognition command far more attention than any singular performer.

And no one’s more surprised than I am. I was the last guy who wanted to see another Mission: Impossible. I stopped caring about the series somewhere near the third act of the original. There’s a lot to like about that first one, but I was certain John Woo and Fred Durst killed the franchise dead with oversaturated turdbomb M:I2. With Mission: Impossible 3, J.J . Abrams (returning here in a producer role) didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Aside from maybe Cruise himself, few people were demanding a new M:I in theaters – yet I’m glad we got it.

Ghost Protocol feels like the anti-Bourne spy film. It’s a brisk affair and the action is filmed in sweeping strokes without the threat of shaky cam. Bird for the most part avoids the closeup combat and heavy-handed nature of most recent-vintage spy films. Along with executive producer Cruise and screenwriters André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum, he’s crafted a great ride that manages to feel light as air despite the ever-present threat of nuclear winter. Amidst the chaos, the same playfulness Bird evidenced in earlier films like The Incredibles and Ratatouille shines through. The film shoots for levity a few too many times; a far cry from De Palma’s heavier cloak and dagger ’96 entry. But masterful pacing and captivating visual scenery go a long way in negating the flatter attempts at humor.

The Dubai sequences are so stunning that anything that follows can't compare.

I like where we find Ethan Hunt at the beginning of the film. Holed up in a Russian prison and disavowed (for what seems like the umpteenth time), it’s a situation that ties into the film’s one legitimate mystery: what happened to Hunt’s wife? I wasn’t blown away by the eventual answer, but it’s an admittedly satisfying way to explain Michelle Monaghan’s absence (Hunt’s wife in M:I3).

Aside from that one lingering question, this is the most cut and dry film in the series. There’s no greater overarching mystery or double cross. A Russian rogue codenamed “Cobalt” and his collection of miscreants want to scorch the Earth with nukes. It’s up to Tom Cruise and his team to keep that from happening. That’s it – the plot’s not asking a lot of the viewer: Ethan Hunt good, missiles bad, me Tarzan, you Jane. At times it’s refreshing but by the third act I found myself waiting for a turn that never came. Much of the film’s suspense is derived not from narrative but from the action. This is especially true for an incredible chase sequence in Dubai, one of the best chase scenes I’ve seen in a decade.

But the film loses a step at the end. Michael Nyqvist is a talented performer but his big bad isn’t an effective counter to Ethan Hunt. The bad guys are barely in this, making for an unsatisfying conclusion. Part of me hoped that someone on Ethan’s team would turn just to make things more personal. As it is, I wasn’t as invested in the ending as I would have been otherwise. This disconnect makes the third act the lesser part of the whole. Everything happens as it should, even when it would have been more engaging to introduce a wrench. The final showdown doesn’t remotely compare to anything filmed in the stunning spectacle of the Dubai portion of the film.

And viewing that spectacle on a six-story IMAX screen is the only way to see the film. Like The Dark Knight, the film’s biggest set pieces have the added benefit of being filmed with those hulking, 300 pound IMAX cameras. A wider and higher resolution, this superior viewing experience takes a piss in the ocular cavities of the standard 35mm film gauge found in regular theaters.

Bringing order to the chaos, there’s honest-to-goodness solid acting work done by the principals. Jeremy Renner gives a forceful turn and provides a great foil to Cruise’s “jump without looking” Ethan Hunt. His character’s arc never becomes what it should be, and out of everyone I feel he’s given the shortest shrift in the third act. Paula Patton plays IMF agent Jane, effectively assuming the Maggie Q role this time around. She’s got the sexiness for the part, but the script also gives her actual motivation that Patton is able to hang real character work on. I didn’t care for Simon Pegg’s Benji in the previous installment, but his role here (he actually passed his field test) serves a purpose and the history between he and Hunt feels plausible.

"Shhhh, we're secret agents."

And then there’s Tom Cruise: he of couch jumping and Holmes defiling. Cruise has taken a lot of hits in recent years, some of it deserved. But he’s also an incredible performer, and the physicality he brings to Ethan Hunt reveals an actor with something to prove. Protocol, with its incredible stunt work and top-shelf effects work by ILM, serves as a reminder of why we loved Cruise in the first place. The guy can still command a room, and it’s this film where he brings everything and the kitchen sink – no more evident than when he’s sprinting down the world’s tallest building like the stubborn man child I suspect he is. Even his quieter scenes, like a great face-to-face with Tom Wilkinson (the film’s best scene), are reminders of the energy L. Ron’s favorite son still brings. Similar to the redeeming qualities of Fast Five, this is exactly the sort of high-end fun Cruise should be producing; and it’s what finally pulls him out of the doghouse.

Judged on spectacle alone, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is great fun. As an actual film it’s something less, but only slightly. To its benefit, it never tries to be anything more than exactly what it needs to be: a very, very good time should you choose to accept it.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

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