It’s stating the obvious, perhaps, but Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol takes action cinema to new heights. The heights of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, as it happens, as director Brad Bird drags Tom Cruise up to the top of the world’s tallest building (all 2716 feet of it), dangles him from near the top, and then points an IMAX camera at him.
To say this particular sequence is exhilirating barely does it justice. The audacity, calmness and confidence of it is staggering, and it’s the centrepiece of a really quite strong Mission: Impossible movie.
Because mark this as a franchise back on track. Appreciating that Mission: Impossible III was quite warmly received, I was never that sold on it. I thought it cut away at the wrong moments, was a little impatient, wasted a potentially great villain, and that it was too Cruise-centric. Save for one or two impressive sequences, it was a long away from Brian De Palma’s franchise opener.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a whole lot surer, at least for three quarters of the way. Valuing silence as much as it does fast edits, the film sees Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his IMF team working alone, in another race against time to stop another world-ending threat.
It kicks off with a sequence that at first comes across as serviceable at best, before gradually, skillfully escalating. It’s a prison break, that tips its hat very slightly to the oft-maligned underrated Bruce Willis caper, Hudson Hawk, and gradually introduces as it goes more and more franchise elements.
From that confident opening, the pieces of the plot fall into place. There are nuclear weapons. There are codes. There are bad people. And there’s Tom Cruise, taking centre stage in an ensemble, but sharing the screen far more than last time around (there’s no drippy romance shoehorned in, either). Ghost Protocol also trails some plot crumbs back to the third film, too, but in pretty much every other sense, it feels much different.
Brad Bird proves to be an inspired choice to direct, conveying urgency without going bananas when cutting his action sequences together. He’s happy to let his characters slow down, talk, explain things, and escalate matters through dialogue, before yanking the rug. And when he does cut to the proverbial chase, his action sequences are, at their best, quite brilliant.
There’s clearly some influence from the Bourne movies here, but Bird, crucially, allows you to see what’s going on in his big blockbuster moments, aside from one or two points where he’s deliberately obscuring your view of events.
Yet what I particularly warmed to is how he tapped into what made De Palma’s first Mission: Impossible movie work so well: he knows when to shut his film up.
If the occasionally breathtaking photography of Ghost Protocol gives you spectacle, it’s the willingness to cut the sound to the bare minimum that injects plenty of tension. Bird nails the pacing of his big moments here, too, choosing to focus on three or four big sequences, and giving them the space to breathe. The pay off, as a consequence, is regularly impressive.
He marries all that up to an economy of dialogue, as well: there’s little pointless conversation here, and he occasionally trusts his ensemble to convey more through simple gesture than always relying on passages of speech.
Cruise is in excellent, convincing form as the returning Ethan Hunt, his surprisingly aged appearance serving the character well. Elsewhere, Simon Pegg gets a beefed up role (with the aid of some fine T-shirts), and he grows into it throughout the film. At first, he comes across perhaps a little too much on the side of comedic sidekick, but the film’s humour – and there are a good few chuckles here – emanates more from deadpan delivery. By the end, Pegg is firing such moments out strongly, even if a bit more depth to his character wouldn’t hurt.
Jeremy Renner, going into this film, was being tipped as the heir apparent to the franchise, and his character has slightly more complexity that suggests that he’d be more than able as the future of the franchise. He’s still not given enough to do, but Renner quietly impresses, and I walked away thinking that he and Cruise in tandem might be a better way forward. Paula Patton is worth bringing back, too.
Michael Nyqvist, meanwhile, gets more to get his teeth into here in the antagonist role than he did in Taylor Lautner vehicle, Abduction. He’s still a bit of a disappointing villain, though, the problem there being more in the writing than in his performance.
There are a couple of niggles. Once the Dubai sequence is done, the film never quite manages to get to that level of exhilaration again, and, consequently, begins to feel quite drawn out (for me, the film would have been stronger is the last big sequence has been dropped). It’s a little too long and does threaten to outstay its welcome, only just bringing down the curtain in the nick of time.
On top of that, one or two of its gadgets would be laughed out of town if they appeared in a Bond film, with good reason.
However, in a year that’s not been short of good blockbusters, Ghost Protocol is another that stands tall. It’s a significant improvement on the last film, and feels closest in tone and execution to the first. It benefits from feeling just a little more ensemble-driven, too.
What’s more, Brad Bird also puts his own stamp down here, migrating a good chunk of what made his animated work (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, The Incredibles) so impressive to live action. On an IMAX screen in particular, it’s hard not to applaud just how well Bird uses the screen (and not just for action). The gauntlet has certainly been laid down to Christopher Nolan in that regard.
Some questioned, understandably, if there was still room for Mission: Impossible movies to thrive in a world where Bond and Bourne continue to rule, especially when Tom Cruise’s star power appears to be on the wane. In many senses, Ghost Protocol is a riposte to that.
Most importantly of all, though, it’s a really enjoyable, if overlong, night at the movies. And it’s one that deserves to be seen on an absolutely massive screen.