Dear 3D. IMAX is officially eating your lunch. Please stop pretending you’re still relevant; it’s getting embarrassing.
The visual triumph of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is best appreciated on an IMAX screen if you can swing it. Taking serious cues from The Dark Knight, it treats us to swooping vistas of Moscow, Dubai and similar far-flung ports of call, as well as the ultra-super-secret-spy-type awesomeness that takes place within them. That it does so without the use of 3D further demonstrates how utterly useless the technique has become, and how little it contributes to the experience of watching a movie. Ghost Protocol blows our socks off at every turn, and it didn’t need any image-destroying glasses to do it.
Of course, a lot of old fashioned filmmaking goes into that equation as well. Good or bad, the Mission Impossible films have never settled for hack directors, and the choice here pays off in spades. Brad Bird – the animation genius who won Oscars for Ratatouille and The Incredibles, and whose departure from The Simpsons delivered a blow from which that once-great series never recovered – proves equally adept with his first live-action production as he does with ink and paint. Mission Impossible doesn’t demand much from a subtext standpoint, but the action and mayhem need careful choreography, and after four films, we need a good reason to pay attention. Bird’s storytelling skills translate exceptionally well in all of those categories, creating the best Mission Impossible film to date.
The specifics are engaging, but only enough to get the job done. Once again, we return to IMF operative Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), busted out of a Russian prison for a top secret assignment in the Kremlin. It’s a set up, of course. The building is destroyed in a fiery explosion – part of a plot to steal nuclear missile codes – and Hunt gets the blame. Cut off from any support network, he and his small team need to track down the culprit and stop him before he launches a nuclear war.
It’s pretty McGuffin-esque, though Bird gives it just enough complexity to keep us focused in the right direction. He also makes sure that the characters at the heart of it feel like actual people instead of video game avatars. Hunt apparently lost his wife a few years back, and may not have his head entirely in the game. Then there’s Brandt (Jeremy Renner), the analyst thrown in with him who definitely has secrets of his own to share. They’re joined by Simon Pegg’s redoubtable comic relief and Paula Patton’s agreeably gorgeous ass kicker, forming a resolutely engaging quartet to carry us along.
Naturally, the escapades are the real purpose of the exercise here, and with the basic narrative elements secured, Bird has license to cut loose. He understands the intricacies of each of his terrific set pieces – throwing in unexpected challenges and last-minute twists when appropriate – and expertly mines every drop of tension out of it until we’re wrung out like a dish towel on the theater floor. IMAX enhances the best moments; the ads are pushing Cruise’s free climb up the Khalifa Tower in Dubai, but we don’t feel the white-knuckle drop until it fills our vision with 25 vertical yards of “Don’t fucking look down!” Similar sequences involving sandstorms, underwater escapes, and a fight in a multi-story carport achieve equally impressive results, aided by the fact that we never quite know where it’s all going next.
A far more mundane conceit works even greater wonders. Cut off as he is from outside help, Hunt has to rely on whatever equipment is handy… and while Ghost Protocol is rife with the cool gadgets, very few of them work the way they should. Not only does this create exquisite new avenues of suspense (those magic gloves give out at a really inopportune time), but it thrusts the burden of each challenge back to the characters: forcing them to think their way out of the box instead of relying on the latest cool doodad. Star power adds quite a punch as well – all four of the leads are great to watch – and while Ghost Protocol overstays its welcome ever so slightly, the craftsmanship and technical polish have seen few peers this year.
The only real flaw in the film comes from its more overtly commercial elements; to put it bluntly, the BMW porn doesn’t even bother to conceal itself. But it speaks volumes that we can’t find anything more substantive to nit-pick, and the crackerjack entertainment value on display buries such quibbles so deeply that they may never find their way out again. Ghost Protocol offers nothing more than popcorn fun, but it does so extraordinary verve and technical prowess: far more than most part fours can ever aspire to. Bird has the chops to do whatever he wishes behind the camera. His efforts here prove it beyond the shadow of a doubt, and even better: serve notice that this fifteen-year-old franchise – with more downs than ups in the balance – is a long way from done.