Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2012

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Top o' the world, Ma!

After 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol,' can we please start to acknowledge Brad Bird as one of our greatest filmmakers?

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Paramount Pictures
Director: Brad Bird
Screenplay: Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller
Starring: Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Michael Nyqvist, Josh Holloway, Lea Seydoux and Vladimir Mashkov
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 13 minutes
Opened December 21, 2011
(out of four)

You always hear about action movies and their "gravity-defying" stunts, but how often do you actually feel the gravity those stunts are supposedly defying? Not very often, if you ask me.

Enter Brad Bird, Tom Cruise, and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, the fourth installment of a franchise that began in 1996 and has now peaked. Among the film's many sensational setpieces is one set in Dubai at the Burj Khalifa skyscraper (the world's tallest building), where for once we actually feel the pull of all those many thousands of feet between the window and the ground.

Of course, we have it easy - Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is the one who has to go outside and climb the windows of the building, using a pair of high-tech magnetic gloves, from a couple hundred stories up. I suppose that's not such a big deal for the guy who we saw rock-climbing without a harness in a somewhat similar sequence at the beginning of M:I2. But looking back at that previous scene, I don't recall feeling anything remotely similar to the kind of scrotum-tickling thrill of the Dubai sequence here in M:I4. Rarely am I so in the moment, so agonizingly unaware of the safety precautions the filmmakers have set up just outside the camera's purview.

The credit for this goes to Bird, who is without question one of the best pure action directors in the game right now - and, if not for Tarantino, might even stake a claim as the very best. He gets little credit for this because his first three films were animated - a trio of masterpieces, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. The kitchen chase scene in the latter alone should have left no doubt about his sense of space and the fluidity of his camera movement.

Those abilities are on full display in M:I4. His feel for the geography of a scene is impeccable; he uses every detail he can. Consider the shot in the middle of a crowded party scene, when he follows the squirt of a fountain to move from one character to another. Or the fun he has with the devices and cliches the franchise is known for (a message fails to self-destruct after five seconds, so Ethan has to turn back around and jog its memory).

More than anything, I was struck simply by the sheer imagination of Bird's filmmaking. This is, on its face, an action spy thriller like any other, but Bird turns his genre "limitations" into a vibrant cinematic playground. Action movies are known for their cheap thrills, but the thrills here aren't cheap - it earns every one of them.

The title Ghost Protocol refers to a presidentially-decreed black ops mission in which everyone at the IMF is disavowed and essentially has to go rogue to save the day. Ethan and his team - Jane (the magnificent Paula Patton), Benji (Simon Pegg) and the analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner) - find themselves in the middle of a bad situation when the Russian nuclear codes they're trying to steal from the Kremlin get stolen instead by a Russian hell-bent on worldwide destruction (though instead of the typical motivations of power and/or anarchy, this time it's for somewhat altruistic, if twisted, reasoning about the survival of mankind).

The Kremlin is destroyed, the IMF is blamed, a new Cold War starts bubbling to the surface and Ghost Protocol is initiated. Then lots of awesome stuff happens. (While we're on the subject, the film also reinforces the fact that the Cold War is/was fantastic. For drama, anyway. By comparison, the War on Terror is totally lame.)

The Mission: Impossible series has proven surprisingly durable. Part of that, as others have pointed out, is that four directors with four different styles have taken a crack at it, resulting in four distinctive efforts (at least within the parameters of what the genre and recurring characters allow). I've always disregarded John Woo's M:I2 as rather a waste of time and a monotonous self-parody, but I've quite enjoyed the other three. More importantly, I've enjoyed the other three each for different reasons.

In DePalma's Mission: Impossible, it was the almost surreal indulgence in mystery, subterfuge and disorientation as the driving narrative forces. In J.J. Abrams' M:I3, it was the gleefully self-conscious over-the-topness of it all, from Philip Seymour Hoffman's scenery-chewing but still-scary villain to the persistent close-ups and elaborate, absurd stuntwork.

And here with Ghost Protocol, it's the pure creativity and humor on display in every scene. Not just anyone can go from animation to live action so effortlessly, but Bird just did it. And, in the process, may have raised the standard for modern action filmmaking.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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