In a season filled with spy movies, it might be more than just a happy coincidence that the two headliners are equally satisfying films and an almost perfect dichotomy of styles. Just a few weeks after the little-heard release of the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, here is its polar opposite, Ghost Protocol, the fourth Mission: Impossible movie, in which the world of intelligence gathering is reduced (or rather inflated) to strands of dialogue tagged on to the tail end of successively more impressive fist-and-gun fights.
Ghost Protocol is a balls-out action movie in just about the best way, meaning it’s ridiculous in a thoroughly professional manner. Credit this, as everyone has, to the hand of the most gifted director yet to helm an MI movie, animator Brad Bird. Bird’s enormous success with children’s films (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille) is undoubtedly responsible for his ability, in live-action-adventure, to keep everything in perspective. That is, he knows the value of a high-quality entertainment: that when a movie has an absurd premise (fat superheroes, gourmet chef rats, 50-year-old superspies), the only thing to do is keep a straight face, make a few jokes, and direct the action as high as it will go. Ghost Protocol has very few of the past Mission’s pretensions — like trying to get us to feel tense about some ridiculous threat to the entire planet and/or the love life of Tom Cruise’s character. It has only awe-inspiring action sequences, one after another. Bird is smart enough to know that Cruise, the movie’s producer, wants one thing with this movie: a hit to bring him back to the top of the pile of movie stars. Cruise knows that Bird has the grace and humor to accomplish this for him. The result is the Mission series’ biggest dip into self-parody that doesn’t slow down long enough to recognize it.
The plot plunks a load of action into the middle of a rapid re-escalation of the US-Russia nuclear standoff. Once again, an enemy of the United States is threatening the life of every human being on earth. But there is nowhere the political subplot in which Senators and Ambassadors drink coffee and smoke cigarettes while fretting around large, dark, circular tables. The only hint of a politician is one grave, shadowy man who is promptly shot in the head. This clears the way for more ridiculousness, which is nice.
For me, the series (which I recently revisited in prep for this review, and also because it’s fun to sit down and watch three action movies) is about daring us to believe that superspy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) might not be able to handle the feats with which he is tasked, feats generally beyond what we might expect of an entire SEAL team, and then being reassured that, of course, he can. There is something comforting about this, at least for someone who grew up on action movies. Hunt never devolves into John McClane territory, having to sacrifice bones and pints of blood in order to beat the bad guy. Nor does he require experimental growth serums or gamma radiation to be able to scale buildings, get up and fight after being hit by a car, or make split-second decisions that nevertheless outwit legions of oncoming enemies. Hunt is a pure, old-fashioned hero, straight out of the movies, and it seems that in Ghost Protocol, with its doses of self-parody, he’s finally been done right.
There are two places where the movie trips up. One is in the final action sequence, which simply begins to drag after awhile — the greatest sin for a movie that’s all about thrills. The cross-cutting between fights and ticking bomb-countdowns eventually blur into an extended, loud montage of cars, guns, and fists, which is most likely due to Bird’s inability, as a hired hand, to change the script. The second slip-up is a requisite postscript where Hunt’s relationship problems (it’s hard being a spy and a husband) are allowed to take the movie to its end. For me, the clincher that made me decide Ghost Protocol was actually a good blockbuster came when I realized that the spy-love life I never cared about in the previous movies had been taken out of the equation. Cramming it all into an extended scene at the end of two-plus hours of derring-do seemed like a cheap shot. Tom Cruise was once ready to be seen as a relatively risk-taking actor (Born on the Fourth of July, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut). But just because he’s playing it safe in action doesn’t mean he has to be dumb about it. For the vast majority of Ghost Protocol, he isn’t.