Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
The image of Tom Cruise, as his high-flying heroic alter ego Ethan Hunt, dangling precariously from the outside of the insanely tall Dubai Tower, is an apt metaphor for his undertaking of this project, the fourth "Mission: Impossible" film. The movie is a massive, globetrotting undertaking (which looks spectacular on the IMAX screen), and the Cruise persona is massive right there along with it. But in this day and age, in a Cruise-soured, action-saturated world, can another return to the IMF well possibly be justified? The reception of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" remains to be seen, but for what it's worth (for all it's worth!) the filmmakers seem to know this, and therefore pull out all the stops in crafting what is ultimately, as they say, a rollicking fun time at the movies.

The "Mission: Impossible" film franchise is an interesting study in modern day high-stakes franchise filmmaking. While being star-centric through and through (Tom Cruise, does after all, ultimately run this show), the series is also a showcase of various auteur sensibilities. The M:I films helmed by Brian De Palma, John Woo, and J.J. Abrams each go beyond any expected work-for-hire notions, presenting themselves as authentic entries in their respective filmographies in terms of both style and themes explored. The series allows such filmmakers an opportunity to play in the James Bond sandbox that they, for their very nationalities alone, may've never been afforded - and the chance to do so in a more artistically viable way. (Again, something not afforded to the Bond directors.) Although the classic 1960s espionage television series from which the films stem was a procedural, team-based program, Tom Cruise, once his company procured the film rights many years later, had other ideas. In terms of changes, the most immediately obvious is the abrupt shift to a singular hero focus. Indeed, for this reason among others, when the first film hit in 1996, fans of the old school series cried to have Cruise and company disavowed.

Cruise's production company had the audacity to make their very first "Mission: Impossible" film a Gordian knot of a film, and a highly deconstructionist one at that. With De Palma as director and Robert Towne on the screenplay, it should've been no surprise that the film was all about questioning authority, viewing the world turned on it's head, and demolishing icons - some of the most sacred within M:I cannon. In retrospect, 1996's precisely crafted "Mission: Impossible" remains one of the most intuitively brazen films of it's culturally tepid era. "Ghost Protocol", while lacking both De Palma's visual gusto or underlying thematic skepticism, does go to lengths that associate more with this entry than any others in the series. In fact, the new film is the first in this series of previously stand-alone films that operates as a bona fide sequel, calling back to each of the previous films (if Tom Cruise having long hair again can count as the sole callback to Woo's nutty fun "M:I-2").

The fourth "Mission: Impossible" film is just as clever as it needs to be, and perhaps no more so. The film has the distinction of being the debut live action film by animation maestro Brad Bird. Since his time on "The Simpsons", Bird went on to brilliantly create one Pixar film (the exceptional "The Incredibles") and respectfully salvage another ("Ratatouille"). Prior to those, he hit an ignored home run with "The Iron Giant", perhaps his film entry thematically closest to this one. Bird brings an intrinsic sense of fun to the party, striking just the right tone between doomsday scenario and positive crowd-pleasing spectacle. (A classic Bond hallmark, well realized.) However, being the M:I filmmaker with the least developed auteur sensibility thus far, it is perhaps fitting that his entry is also the one that, more than any of the others, harkens back to the impersonal source material, the original television series. (I don't know for certain, but there are sequences and gadgets in this film that just scream out "cool M:I TV homage"!) Previously, all of Ethan Hunt's missions were spurned on by a personal vendetta (either his organization left him out in the cold, or his love interest was in trouble, or both), but this time, for the first time, it's purely professional in an almost Howard Hawks-ian manner.

So how can it both harken back to the TV series and the De Palma film that went out of its way to tear down so much of that series? The answer is in how most everything in this story utterly breaks down. Bird may not be so interested in exploring the current widespread crumbling of our once-reliable societal norms, and commenting on them metaphorically in the action/adventure domain, (he's far more into train-mounted retinal scanners and gag phone booths... Which is okay, too) but the screenplay certainly seems to be. Just as the first M:I film told us that all was not what it appeared, and seemed to hint at a greater collapse, "Ghost Protocol" delivers on that notion with not only one tech failure after another, but the political demise of the IMF organization itself. In this way, just as so many other films of this year have woven a collectively apocalyptic cinema tapestry, this movie (albeit more subtly) goes back to the beginning for it's own spy-pocalyse.

Being a more team centric M:I film than we've ever seen before, it's cast is populated with interesting actors, all of whom get their time in the sun. Cruise, leaning far less on his hallmark mannerisms and deliveries that so many find grating, has officially grown comfortably into the action genre. (Too bad he's about to age out of it.) Simon Pegg returns from his glorified cameo in M:I-3 as a comedy relief field tech. Pegg does this role very well, although the lengths of his shenanigans do at times strain his credibility as a secret agent. Jeremy Renner is brought on board as an IMF analyst who may be more than he appears to be (hmmm, ya think??). Paula Patton is the token girl agent, kicking up dust in a no-holds-barred fight scene with the film's sexy assassin (Lea Seydoux). She's the one that the film allows a personal vendetta to be settled (and settled it is).

Between Cruise's real life dramas, outspoken tendencies and each films absolute refusal to resemble one another, the "Mission: Impossible" franchise has never made it easy on itself. "Ghost Protocol" may arrive as yet another sequel that the public never asked for, but in its own way, it both stands beside and stands alone from what has come before it. Going back to the Dubai Tower metaphor, of course Cruise cannot plummet while Bird is flying high. The former's age may be starting to show, and the ladder may be just a bit in over his head with this foray into live action spectacle, but like the IMF team in this film, they work against the crazy odds in a prevailing way.

- Jim Tudor
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