Monday, January 2, 2012

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocal Review

The year was 1996, I was 10 years old, and my dad took me to see "Mission: Impossible," staring Tom Cruise. As far as I can remember, this was the first Tom Cruise movie I had ever seen, and at the time I didn't really have a good idea of who he was or that he was in any way important. I only knew that he was young, did his own stunts, and was playing a character, Ethan Hunt, that had never appeared on the original "Mission: Impossible" tv series (1966-1972, 1988-1990). You see, I had discovered the series on FX the year before (at the time, FX was a start up cable channel that aired mostly old programming, not the premium original series programmer that it is today), and I developed a quick attachment to it. "Mission: Impossible" rarely bothered with things like character development, instead focusing on episodic plots of the week where we knew by the end of the hour our heroic IMF team would work together to defeat evil. 

So imagine my surprise in 1996, when, Jim Phelps, the heroic leader of the television IMF team and the only character to appear in the film from the series, turns out to be (*15 year old spoiler alert*) the villain! My shock and surprise did not keep "Mission: Impossible" from being my favorite film of the year, beating out even "Independence Day," much to the chagrin of my other 10 year old friends. 

But my joy was short lived. Even though "Mission: Impossible" grossed $188 million dollars, it faced critical attacks that said it was "too confusing" or, worse, too "cerebral" for modern audiences. Director Brian DePalma had crafted a smart thriller that was apparently too smart for the older generation. My generation got it, though, and I challenge you to find anyone my age who didn't enjoy the first "Mission: Impossible" or who was confused by it.

Finally, in 2000, they made a sequel; and it was horrible. After an intriguing opening featuring the film's villain in a Tom Cruise disguise, our heroic Ethan Hunt, who struggled to clear his name and resist his attraction to his mentor's wife in the first film, goes to bed with a jewel thief in the first 20 minutes of the movie without even knowing what his mission is (neither do we, the audience, and we are bored). The film's script, written in a hurry to fit established action sequences, was a poor man's copy of the Hitchcock film "Notorious," but with modern innovations, like casual sex, that managed to remove all the charm from the plot of that classic film.

Ironically, this film made more money than the first, but the franchise was in a sorry state, and languished for 6 years. Then, first time film director J.J. Abrams, having just started "Lost," directed "M:I-III," in an attempt to redeem the franchise and reassert its place as the only real American spy franchise. For the most part, he succeeded. "M:I-III" is very much a film of its time, featuring a "gritty," and "realistic" style that seemed to dominate all action films released right before the recession. Abrams attempted to bring character development to Ethan Hunt by giving him a wife to protect in the final act of the film. Unfortunately, a bit of bad publicity featuring Cruise's personal life derailed the performance of the film, and it became the lowest (domestic) grossing film in the franchise; prompting paramount to sever their corporate ties with Tom Cruise's production company and leaving the star "homeless" for a time. There was some talk of continuing the franchise with another actor, such as Brad Pitt, but the rumors came to naught and the franchise languished again.

However, nothing in Hollywood is certain. In the five years since 2006, J.J. Abrams became one of the most powerful forces in Hollywood, producing and directing several hit films. Together, he and Cruise decided to make a 4th Mission: Impossible. They would have a third less of the budget from M:I-III, forcing them to make budget cuts in nearly every area of production. They took a gamble; and they won big time.

"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," is the first "Mission" sequel without a number in the title, and potentially the best film in the entire franchise. The film features a entirely new cast (with the exception of Cruise) and a first time live action director, Academy Award Winner Brad Bird ("The Incredibles"). His hand is seen very early on as the film features an ingenious "Mission: Impossible" title sequence that could only have been imagined by an animation director.

The amazing thing about "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" is that it "just works." Like many good thrillers, the film starts with the adventure already in progress, and we the audience are left to figure out things as we go along. The filmmakers never truly give us enough information to know what's going on; and keep us wondering just why Tom Cruise's character starts the film off in prison, and what happened to his wife with whom at the end of the third film he walked away with presumably to live happily ever after. Ironically, even though this film does not set out to have deliberate "character development," as many films do, I think Ethan's character is developed more in this film than in any other, as we see him have to constantly adapt to his circumstances and rely on agents he did not choose and does not know.

The film moves along at an extremely quick pace, never really slowing down for anything but a tiny bit of hasty exposition here and there. At many times, you believe the characters are in real peril, and sometimes they are, as the film features a sequence, shot in IMAX format, where Tom Cruise is truly hanging of the side of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. It also features some breath taking action sequences, such as the "sandstorm" sequence, which easily rivals any action sequence in any of the big action films of the last 30 years (director Bird claims the scene was inspired by "Raiders of the Lost Ark"). The film's locations are beautifully photographed, from Budapest, Hungary, to Moscow, to Dubai, and finally Mumbai, India. Each "mini-mission" is thoughtfully worked out and strongly resembles the types of missions featured in the original series; unlike the violent gun battles of M:I-2 and 3. Humor is present throughout, and the film never fails to entertain. Worthy of mention on this account is actor Simon Pegg ("Star Trek," "Hot Fuzz"), who played a small role in M:I-III and reprises the role of computer tech Benji Dunn, now a field agent assigned to aid Ethan Hunt. Keep your eyes (and ears) open for a scene where Pegg elaborates how working with Ethan in the field is "something of a dream" and only regrets not wearing "masks, you know, full masks."

"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" does not aspire to be gritty nor realistic. Instead, it attempts to harken back to the classic days of the spy genre, featuring cold war style hijinks in a world without a cold war. It is immensely entertaining, channeling the spirit of the original series better than any of the films before it; and the most fun film of the season. If you want to have a good, old fashioned fun time at the movies, go see "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." This internet capable device will self-destruct in five seconds, good luck.

Written by Daniel Noa
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