A Little Less Conversation
Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol represents four or five terrific action sequences in search of an overall good movie. It has been half a decade since Tom Cruise played Ethan Hunt, the American movie star's version of James Bond. This is a curious franchise because each entry is by a different director, and they are separated by several years; there is no real sense of continuity beyond Cruise's iconic face. The first, by Brian De Palma, was a stylish espionage suspense film with a few memorable moments of high-wire action. It is also still the best, in my humble opinion. Cruise enlisted Hong Kong action icon John Woo to direct the second film and so began one of the franchise's few consistent elements: a move away from the classic spy--elegance, suspicion--and toward the superhero, which continues unabated in this third sequel, directed by Brad Bird, transitioning from animation (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille) to live action. A few of Ethan Hunt's daring feats here might inspire jealousy in Spider-Man.
The plot doesn't matter, which is a shame. Even when the action and stunts are emphasized, there is room in the Mission: Impossible franchise for complex-by-mainstream-standards storytelling. Bird and the screenwriters embrace a strict, repetitive formula: ten to fifteen minutes of action (chase! fight! gadget!), followed by brief diarrheal bursts of exposition to set up the next round of chasing, fighting, and gadget utilizing. Attempts at simulated depth--repeated, oft-cryptic references to an ill-fated mission involving Hunt and his wife, which the audience doesn't see, and how this may be weighing on Hunt's decisions and state of mind--feel half-hearted, shoehorned in with minimal care.
Another misstep: there is no real villain. Léa Seydoux is a compelling and fetching presence as a sexy French assassin, but is removed from the equation too soon. And Michael Nyqvist, another charismatic European star (he played opposite Noomi Rapace in the Swedish-language Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) graduating to playing villains in Hollywood productions, barely registers as a nuclear-obsessed madman, despite being intended as the main antagonist. He can't hold a candle to Philip Seymour Hoffman's restrained, eerie performance as Hunt's nemesis in the third film, which gave the entire movie a shot of ferocity and nerve.
What Bird does deliver is action, action, action. It becomes a bit wearying by the end, but there is no denying his craft, his ability to cleanly, crispy, and fluidly present motion on the big screen. An extended sequence in Dubai, which finds Hunt scaling the side of a tower and later racing his car through a sandstorm, is an electrifying showstopper.
Cruise easily slides into the role for a fourth adventure. Ethan Hunt isn't a deep character, but rather an action-and-stunts vehicle for Cruise. He's as game as ever, running and leaping and shooting and speeding with aplomb, though I do half wish he would transcend this type of role and move into playing more interesting, three-dimensional characters in smaller films. Series newcomer Jeremy Renner puts his effortless screen intensity to appealing use as Brandt, a self-described analyst who can handle himself in the field, though there is nothing to suggest he could grab hold of and headline the franchise should Cruise, pushing 50, move on. No big deal. I'm sure Cruise has at least three of these left him in, maybe four, maybe five. How long until Ethan Hunt goes to space?