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
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
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.