The great thing about the Mission: Impossible series is that each film has a different director. This means that each entry has its own unique style, keeping things fresh and relevant, as each director has put his own spin on super-spy Ethan Hunt’s signature brand of stylish, thrilling espionage.
Brian de Palma’s original is in many ways a classic of the genre – the sequence in which Hunt and his team infiltrate CIA headquarters at Langley is iconic, and has been parodied in numerous media since. John Woo’s less cerebral second outing brought the series to Australia and skilfully employed slowmo and doves in his patented use of over the top, high-octane action. The third mission however, found itself in the hands of then first time feature film director J. J. Abrams, who humanised Hunt (who up to that point had basically been Tom Cruise as himself in Action Man mode) by giving him a wife and adding a lot of lens flares.
Now it’s Brad Bird’s turn, and it turns out that his mission might just be the best one yet. Eschewing the numbering system of previous films, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is doubtless the best action thriller of the year. Finally, a fantastic action film that is neither based on a comic book nor a post-Bourne shaky cam fest! Bird, whose previous credits include Pixar’s Ratatouille and The Incredibles, astounds, igniting the screen with blazing action, thrills, laughs and memorable, likeable characters.
Ghost Protocol recalls a time when movies didn’t have to be gritty or ‘realistic’, when spies were free to use ridiculous gadgets and gizmos (the best here are a pair of gloves used in a jaw-dropping sequence in Dubai – more on that later), when the villains were cartoonishly diabolical and when the stakes were absurdly sky-high. Indeed, the villain this time must have gotten fed up waiting to appear in a James Bond movie and decided to jump ship – he’s Kurt Hendricks (an underutilised Michael Nyqvist; he should have had a bigger presence), an extremist who wants to start a nuclear war between Russia and America. It’s a M.A.D. world.
Of course, it’s up to Hunt and his team to stop Hendricks. Benji (Simon Pegg) returns in an expanded role and manages to procure quite a lot of laughs as a bumbling but still somehow capable IMF agent. Pegg has incredible comedic timing and adds a lighter tone to the film without feeling too goofy or otherwise out of place. Paula Patton is Jane Carter, the requisite sexy team member with a bone to pick, and Jeremy Renner rounds out the cast as dubious chief analyst Brandt. I’ll be honest, after watching the trailer I was worried that Brandt’s character arc would walk to a certain cliché tune. Fortunately, nothing so obvious happens. Whenever you’d expect something to take a right turn, Bird challenges your expectations and takes the story left. It happens just enough to keep the plot from being too predictable and falling to formula.
In any case, barely anything goes ‘right’ for Hunt’s team anyway: they’re framed for a bombing at the Kremlin so are forced to go rogue to clear their names. And just when things seem to be going according to plan, everything goes horribly wrong. And then, somehow, things get even worse. Invariably, these were my favourite parts of the film; it’s great fun to watch the characters frantically struggle against all odds only to hang on by the skin of their teeth.
Case in point: the sequence in Dubai. At one point Hunt must scale the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) using gloves that give him Spiderman-like climbing ability. It’s a visually stunning, vertigo-inducing setpiece, and the first thing in the series to rival the iconic infiltration of Langley. All the more incredible is that Tom Cruise did all of his own stunts – his first thoughts on filming were reportedly, “I hope I don’t fall.”
As it turns out, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol soars. Crammed with nods and cameos for fans, this fourth go-around features great action and characters as well as a fun, engaging story. Brad Bird has successfully resurrected the spy thriller and he’s done it with a bang, what more could you want?