Sunday, December 25, 2011

Easily The Best Spy Movie In Years, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

The Good: Tension, Mood, Moments of character, Plot, Effects
The Bad: Moments of predictability, A few editing gaffs.
The Basics: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is a surprisingly good spy thriller that does not use every lame conceit of the spy genre, making it very fun to watch and easy to enjoy.

For Christmas, my mother-in-law came to town. My wife had not seen her mother for about a year and when they were reunited, we had a pretty good time. However, last night after dinner and some local events, my mother-in-law pitched going to the movies. Given that this has been a surprisingly slow time for me with my ability to get to the theaters and check out new movies, I was quite happy with the idea of going out to the movies. Because my wife's little sister was along as well, the best option for a movie that was not rated "R" was Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.

I have no particular affinity for the Mission: Impossible franchise. Some time ago, I saw Mission: Impossible III and I thought that J.J. Abrams used a surprising number of conceits that had been done in Alias in his first Mission: Impossible outing. So, it was with surprisingly low expectations that I went in to Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Fortunately, the film lived up to all of the great press I had heard about it before we saw it.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is a good idea that is well-executed and is not at all dependent upon any other Mission: Impossible film to truly enjoy.

Agent Hanaway is making a daring escape when he is killed by a mysterious blonde woman. That hit puts the Impossible Missions Forces team on a mission to extract Ethan Hunt from a foreign prison. Ethan rescues another prisoner during his extraction and quickly gets his next mission. That mission, which Hunt, Benji and Jane accept, has the team infiltrating the archive room of the Kremlin. There, they try to steal the only records that clearly detail the identity of a terrorist with nuclear ambitions whom Hunt has only known as Cobalt. During the mission, Hunt overhears someone else on their channel and realizes that the mission has been compromised. That suspicion is confirmed moments later when the Kremlin is bombed to disguise the theft of Cobalt's records.

Hunt meets up with the Secretary, who reveals the next mission and explains that the IMF is being used as scapegoats for the destruction of the Kremlin. The Secretary's assistant, the Chief Analyst, Brandt helps Hunt identify the man Hunt believes is responsible for bombing the Kremlin. Unfortunately, forces working against the IMF shoot at their vehicle and kill the Secretary. Hunt and Brandt escape with their new orders to a box car that contains all that remains of the Impossible Missions Force. Reunited with Jane and Benji, the quartet travels from Moscow to Dubai and then India where they try to prevent nuclear launch codes from falling into the hands of the terrorists and then stopping the launch of a nuclear weapon that will start an all-out nuclear war.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol works because it focuses enough on character to be actually interesting and has a plot that does not utilize all of the standard spy movie conceits. For sure, the film does not scrap all of the elements that work, but it does not rely upon them all either. So, for example, when the Secretary is killed very early on in the film, my wife and I spent much of the movie dreading that he was somehow still alive and was actually a villain behind-the-scenes. I wanted to believe that writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec would not use such a disappointing conceit, especially after director Brad Bird used one of the more graphic effects in the movie to have the Secretary shot through the head. Fortunately, Bird and his team did not resort to such a cheap trick.

That said, some equally common conceits do make their way into Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Ethan Hunt has an almost superhuman endurance, especially as the film goes on. The entire movie takes place over the course of only about four days, so the fact that Hunt takes as many blows to the head after being broken out of prison makes the suspension of disbelief a bit tough to handle at times. Similarly, when Josh Holloway appears on screen in the film's first minute, anyone who is a seasoned fan of the spy film genre knows he is going to die fast. While that type role used to be filled by a virtually unknown character actor, when J.J. Abrams produces a film, he seems to want to do the exact opposite. It is as if his hope is that viewers will say to themselves, "if they got X for the role, no way will they die - they are too high profile!" But, because Abrams did that with Keri Russell in the last installment of the Mission: Impossible movies, we see it coming a mile away.

Still, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol has a lot going for it. Ethan Hunt is brooding and moody. In fact, he has a somewhat shaken quality to him that people insinuated James Bond would have after being tortured in Die Another Day (reviewed here!). Hunt, though, has a sense of loss to him in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol that makes him seem very real at times. So, while he has a physical endurance that sometimes borders on the ridiculous, he has less of a psychological strength in this one, making him a more complicated character. Just as the best superheroes are not invincible, the spies who have some failings or weaknesses to them become much more interesting than the seemingly undefeatable spies.

Similarly, Agent Brandt bursts into the franchise as a powerful and interesting new character who is hardly monolithic in his characterization. Brandt has a backstory and it comes out slowly, over the course of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Brandt's history is revealed organically and arguably the greatest character moment of the film comes after the climax when Brandt and Hunt have a chance to explore the implications of what Brandt tells the rest of the team midway through the film.

On the acting front, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is enough to remind even the stodgiest anti-Cruise viewer how Tom Cruise became a superstar. In Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, he is at the top of his game as an action hero. Cruise reacts perfectly to virtual objects and people, helping the viewer to fully invest in the reality of the otherwise fantastic scenario Cruise's Hunt finds himself in.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol as a decent support cast. Josh Holloway makes great use of his very brief time on screen, embodying a character that sounds nothing like his star-making character of Sawyer from Lost (reviewed here)! Even Simon Pegg, who has a bad habit of appearing more as himself in many of his roles than as an actual character, does a great job as Benji. While he does provide much of the film's comic relief., Pegg's Benji is smart and articulate, perfectly embodying what one might expect of a technical and weapon's expert. Paula Patton is appropriately smart and sexy as Jane. The cameo from Ving Rhames and the brief supporting performance from Tom Wilkinson rounds out a series of exceptional performances in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.

But it is Jeremy Renner who steals the show in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Prepping the audience for his full role as Hawkeye in The Avengers, Renner makes Brandt work. He is able to provide a performance that is both subtle and believable. Renner has just enough physical presence to make it believable that his Brandt had been field trained.

Ultimately, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is a satisfyingly smart spy movie that is likely to thrill anyone who likes a good action-adventure film. More than that, it makes the argument to naysayers that an action-adventure film can be worthwhile, exciting and filled with explosions, without being vacuous, dumb and overly predictable.

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