Thursday, January 12, 2012

Fourth 'mission' is great fun

Four movies into a franchise fatigue tends to set in along with diminishing returns financially. With “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” producer and star Tom Cruise truly has done the impossible: He has made a film that may just be the best in the series and that in four weeks has already made nearly $470 million worldwide.

Based on the popular TV series from the 1960s and 1970s, the “Mission: Impossible” films are episodic in nature and that may be the key in helping keeping the series strong 15 years in. Similar to the James Bond movies, each new film is another installment in a series that follows a formula.

The first film, directed by Brian DePalma, captured the dynamic of the show with a focus on a team working together to complete a mission. The second film, directed by John Woo, lost the team dynamic with the film becoming about Cruise single-handedly saving the world. With the third film things got a bit more on track with the teamwork aspect working its way back in, and now with “Ghost Protocol” it is once again front and center.

The new film has Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his team, including Simon Pegg’s Benji, returning from the third film, Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt and Paula Patton’s Jane Carter, being framed for an attack on the Kremlin. This attack is a cover up to stealing a nuclear device and it is up to this now disavowed team to stop the weapon from being used.

In the past audiences and critics have complained that the plots for the “Mission: Impossible” films, particularly the first one, were needlessly over complicated. Things are straightforward here: Stop nuclear war.

As has been true of all these films, there’s at least one mind-boggling sequence — and “Ghost Protocol” has one heck of a set piece. To complete a key part of the mission, Ethan must scale part of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Cruise really is out there climbing up, running along and swinging from the building. It is a masterful bit of suspense. It may be a cliche to say this, but in this case it is a 100 percent true, the scene truly has you squirming on the edge of your seat.

The success of this sequence and the film on the whole goes to director Brad Bird, making his live action directing debut after having previously directed the animated features “Iron Giant,” The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.”

“Iron Giant” and “The Incredibles” both had a retro feel to them with robotics, rockets and heroics that emulated the future as people imagined it in the 1950s and 1960s. There’s some of that in “Ghost Protocol.” Knowing Bird’s work, when a rocket is launched it is hard not to think of “The Incredibles.”

The action sequences aren’t cartoony, but there’s a whimsical logic to them that is similar to the sort you see in animated features. Everything that occurs seems plausible, but there’s a certain elegance to the design of action scenes that seems to point to Bird’s time in animation.

Cruise, who in recent years has had his star power questioned following his antics in the public, still makes a viable hero and, in a way, being a bit older enhances the role. In the first film he was brash and cocky, now he’s the veteran of the team with some deep emotional scars. The performance works.

Pegg, the reliable British star of such films as “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” provides the film with some levity. Typically a comic relief role can feel gimmicky and forced, but Pegg’s light, dry touch works well here. Pegg’s Benji is new to being a field agent after being an office worker and his excitement is charming and funny.

Renner, the Oscar nominated actor from “The Hurt Locker” and “The Town,” brings some acting heft to the film. The role isn’t completely fleshed out, but Renner is required to play both dramatic and comic moments and does them well. There’s a secret about Brandt’s past that connects to Ethan, and this is the emotional crux of the film.

Patton is the least familiar face in the film, but she is solid as the obligatory female member of the team. As is so often the case with female members of spy teams, she is required to seduce a man (Indian star Anil Kapoor in a very funny cameo). It isn’t much of a role, but it is a relief that she isn’t required to merely fall in love with Cruise.

“Ghost Protocol” is an excellent example of well-crafted, intelligent, popcorn entertainment and, against the odds, is well worth checking out.

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