The fourth Mission: Impossible picture, Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol opens in IMAX a week before other theaters, and it’s worth a hefty surcharge and even a long drive to see it on the big, big, big screen and let director Brad Bird slam you around for a couple of hours. Bird makes the mighty leap here to live action from modern animation classics like The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, and I suspect it’s an in-joke (a good one) the way the brave IMF agents wince and quaver and quietly fume on ledges or while hovering over whirling blades or, in one case, 130 stories above the Earth as if they’re in the hands of a prankster god accustomed to maneuvering cartoon characters. Bird’s sense of humor survives intact: The movie is wonderful, nonsensical fun.
It’s also in a different league than the other Mission: Impossible films, which weren’t bad — only deformed by the star/producer’s ego. The original espionage series, which ran on CBS from 1966 to 1973, was often narcotizing, but it had two big things going for it: a stupendously exciting eight-note motif by Lalo Schifrin that’s the aural equivalent of the lit fuse under the credits; and the notion of a team of poker-faced professional good guys functioning as high-tech con artists, donning lifelike masks to impersonate marks and coordinating their stings with clockwork precision. When Tom Cruise seized control of the title, he kept Schifrin’s theme but essentially threw out the team. His Ethan Hunt always ended up a James Bondian lone wolf going mano a mano against the latest super-villain. Directors Brian De Palma, John Woo, and J.J. Abrams did what they could, but it was Cruise’s party.
In Ghost Protocol, the focus shifts back to the collective, which is the last thing you’d expect from Cruise (an alleged monomaniacal control freak) and Bird (an alleged Ayn Randian). Hail comrades! Writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec bring three other characters to the fore: Simon Pegg’s chatterbox tech whiz Benji, Paula Patton’s vengeful agent Jane Carter, and, most intriguing, Jeremy Renner as the anxious policy analyst William Brandt, who finds himself on Ethan’s team when his boss is assassinated and the U.S. government invokes “ghost protocol.” The IMF (Impossible Missions Force) no longer officially exists. Ethan and company, fugitives now, are blamed for nothing less than blowing up the Kremlin.
I won’t bore you with a plot synopsis except to say a madman (Michael Nyqvist*) wants a nuclear war so Earth can start over, and he’s very determined. But our heroes are equally indefatigable. That first Kremlin-robbing operation turns out to be the easiest. The next requires Ethan to scale the tallest building in the world, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, with a dust storm approaching, the mask-making machine malfunctioning, and two sets of deadly terrorists on two different floors expecting to transact a deal for a set of nuclear launch codes. A climactic screeching car ride features the prototypical exchange, “Three minutes to launch!” “We’re three and a half minutes out!” This is, after all, Mission: Impossible and not Mission: Very, Very Hard.
There’s a terrific comic conceit running all through the film. We marvel at the precision and ingenuity of the high-tech gizmos, which are better than James Bond’s, and then laugh and/or cry out in horror when something breaks down and the team must madly improvise. (There’s a throwaway sight gag on the Burj Khalifa involving a newfangled electric suction device that’s worthy of Bird’s Pixar films.) The director has an organic understanding of how best-laid plans become worst-case scenarios, of How Things Work and How Things Go Kerflooey. Ghost Protocol is a tribute to (shaky) grace under (apocalyptic) pressure.
It’s surprising, even moving, how often Cruise throws the ball to Renner. Sure, the younger man is being groomed to take over the series. Or maybe Cruise is in damage-control mode, trying to make us forget both the bad recent Scientology P.R. and the campy flop Knight and Day, in which he tried to send up his image as an egomaniacal lunatic but only reinforced it. In any case, he’s hugely likable as Renner’s coach, while Renner’s what-am-I-doing-here? vibe suggests hitherto untapped comic gifts. Pegg pulls off a few inspired riffs (“I’ll catch you,” he keeps telling Renner, aghast at the prospect of plunging down a shaft into the bowels of a giant computer), Patton uses her long limbs like samurai swords, and the stunt doubles earn their pay. Quibbles? A few. Brandt has a dopey backstory and I wish there were more of Josh Holloway, the hurting bad-boy Sawyer of Lost, who looks as if he could carry a thriller on his own. Almost too few to mention.
The climax of Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol owes something to Inception, but Bird and editor Paul Hirsch do a leaner, cleaner, more elegant job of juggling multiple planes of action. (Sorry, fanboys.) The finale in an automated parking garage in Mumbai (yes, the movie goes from Dubai to Mumbai) suggests the rising and falling elevators of “Donkey Kong," and the suspense is heightened — as is everything else — by composer Michael Giacchino, who does more variations on Schifrin’s M:I theme than Beethoven did on Diabelli’s. IMAX is the flavor-boosting MSG to Bird’s mise-en-scene. The long traveling shot over desert dunes toward that vertical metropolis Dubai is breathtaking — and brings home the city’s oxymoronical ridiculousness. The views from above Cruise’s head looking 130 stories down trigger primal, fight-or-flight instincts. But you know you don’t have to worry: Brad Bird will catch you.
* This post was corrected as Michael Nyqvist was misidentified.