It’s really rather good. That’s the main thing you need to know about Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, fourth entry in the ever more bizarre – and bizarrely still likable – franchise.
When I think back to Mission: Impossible in 1996, I don’t remember it as an action film particularly. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but aside from an exploding restaurant and that silly helicopter business at the end, it was pretty much a thriller; slower paced than the sequels which have followed, and more reliant on tension and trickery. Since John Woo got hold of the franchise it has become an action staple, and is now known primarily as an ‘action spectacular’. This fourth edition, in particular, is more like 90s Bond than ever, with its reliance on an assortment of futuristic gadgets to propel the narrative.
Number four is less of a MacGuffin chase than number three was. Here, the story – though still mostly throwaway – is more clearly delineated, and provides a decent enough excuse for much globetrotting action. New director Brad Bird – helming his first live action piece after making his name at Pixar – does a great job here of containing all the bluster and contrivance of the narrative down into a fairly long but consistently enjoyable romp.
Bird’s direction is workmanlike when it needs to be and often spectacular when it doesn’t; he even harnesses the power of IMAX beautifully in some gorgeous establishing shots and action sequences. The pinnacle of these is undoubtedly the already-famous Burj-Khalifa set piece in Dubai, which is frankly breathtaking. Tom Cruise, now nearly 50 but embodying Ethan Hunt as ably as he ever did, performed some truly astonishing wire work on the outside of the world’s tallest building, and Bird and his editors have created something special here. Watching on IMAX, I felt my heart leap in my chest on more than one occasion; the inventive, visually arresting sequence works hard to exploit its vertiginous setting, and it succeeds.
But it’s not just visually impressive – it’s fun. I don’t know whether it’s the addition of Brad Bird, or simply that the new scriptwriters have made a conscious effort to lighten things up, but the film never forgets the truism that this genre can do wonders in papering over its cracks simply by letting you have a good time. Much of this film’s comic relief comes from Simon Pegg as Benji, now a fully-fledged field agent after his more supporting turn in M:I:III; he’s the funniest he’s been for a while now, and adds a great deal to proceedings. Other new faces include Jeremy Renner as William Brandt and Paula Patton as Jane Carter, both of whom make decent impressions despite not having a great deal to work with.
It’s the overriding sense of fun that earns countless brownie points in Ghost Protocol’s favour. The contrivances of the plot (IMF being disavowed and cut off hardly matters when they’ve got a truck full of weapons and ultra high-tech gadgets, does it?) are allowed to reside pleasantly in the background, even when the film’s obviously commercially-inspired globetrotting and product placement crop up.
There are numerous face-shattering collisions in which Ethan somehow escapes entirely unscathed, but these draw smiles rather than frowns. Indeed, Cruise, pretty much the franchise’s only remaining continuity (though the ending suggests that situation may be about to change), is still able to make Ethan Hunt a character to root for, even if his character arc over four feature films is still laughably insubstantial.
Bar some dodgy CGI on a couple of occasions the film looks fantastic, and Brad Bird more than makes the case that he’s one to look out for in live action as well as animation in the years to come. Hardly a franchise reinvention, but rather a st reamlining exercise with a crucial injection of fun, this may well be the best Mission: Impossible film we’ve seen yet, 16 years after that silly helicopter in the tunnel.