Despite the fact that most fans and critics have hailed J.J. Abrams' MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006) as the best series to date, the movie itself was surprisingly underperformed at the box-office, managing only a disappointing $133.3 million over a hefty $150 million budget. Ever since then, the future of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise was sagging while the star power of once-invincible Tom Cruise was waning just as fast. Six years later, the franchise has finally been given a second chance and the result is MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL. This time around, the fourth installment is helmed by Pixar's animation ace Brad Bird, who was responsible for some of the studio's biggest hits including THE INCREDIBLES (2004) and RATATOUILLE (2007), debuted his first live-action movie ever. It's an inspiring choice but at the same time, it's also a big gamble for choosing a director whose background mainly on animation. Well, for those skeptical viewers, rest assured that Brad Bird's keen eyes for visual flair makes him a terrific choice after all. As one of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters during this holiday season, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL is one hell of a spectacular entertainment.
From the opening scene itself, the movie is already a knockout -- in a scene which set somewhere in Budapest, the camera zooms in an energetic rhythm at a rooftop building as we see IMF Agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway, of TV's Lost) is running away from two bad guys. He leaps off the building while shooting both of the bad guys in the mid-air (I kid you not), before landing himself safely on a mini airbag. However Hanaway is unexpectedly gunned down by a contract killer Sabine Moreau (Lea Seydoux) when he is least expected.
It doesn't stop there, as Brad Bird continues to kick off the pulsating tone of the movie with the following scene at Moscow prison, where Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was imprisoned for killing three Serbians to avenge the death of his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan, who was previously appeared in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III). His fellow IMF team members, Benji (Simon Pegg) who is now promoted to a field operative and newcomer Jane (Paula Patton), are both assigned to help Ethan breaking out of the prison. (Cruise is first seen throwing a ball against a wall in an obvious homage to Steve McQueen's THE GREAT ESCAPE). During this tense moment offset by an inspired musical overlay of Dean Martin's Ain't That a Kick in the Head, Ethan engages in a few brutal fisticuffs against the prison guards and other prisoners before end up taking his Russian cohort, Bogdan (Miraj Grbic) who calls Ethan by the name of "Sergei". After successfully escape the Moscow prison through the underground tunnel, Ethan ends up responding Jane to "light the fuse", the infamous spark traveling across the wire ignites with the ever-catchy theme of Mission: Impossible scored by Michael Giacchino as the opening credit continues with various montage in a playful manner.
Right after the prison breakout, Ethan and his team immediately heading off on their latest mission: preventing a Russian terrorist or more appropriately, a "nuclear extremist" named Kurt Hendricks, code-named "Cobalt" (Michael Nyqvist) from launching a nuclear war against the United States. (In one clever parody, Hunt is surprised to see the infamous 5-second, self-destruct message on a rusty payphone doesn't work at all -- until it takes him to knock on it manually). Next up, Ethan and his team goes to Kremlin where he and Benji infiltrates the Kremlin disguised as high-ranking military officers to retrieve an important file on Hendricks. Here, there is another clever sequence where Ethan and Benji make use of a creative gadgetry -- a projector-like device which functions as a massive invisibility cloak to fool the unsuspecting member thinking it is real. However, something is not right -- Ethan fails to secure the file and he is forced to tell his team members to abort the mission at once. What follows next is a stunning single take of the Kremlin blowing up, as Ethan makes his narrow escape off the building.
Ethan's boss, an IMF secretary (an uncredited Tom Wilkinson) informs Hunt that the entire IMF team has been disavowed -- a term where the president has initiated "ghost protocol". Apparently the Russian government has blamed on the United States for the incident of the Kremlin bombing. And to clear the name, Ethan and his team members are forced to go rogue without any outside help at all. But during that short meeting inside the car, a sudden hail of bullets kills the unfortunate IMF secretary and the driver which sends the entire car flipped into the river. Fortunately, Ethan and analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who is with the IMF secretary earlier, manage to survive from the shootout.
As time is running out, Ethan eventually regroups his existing team members -- Benji and Jane, along with Brandt -- as they set out on their own to stop Hendricks and his men at all cost before it's too late.
The pace never let up, and that's the beauty of Brad Bird's direction. He knows how to engage the viewers glued to their seat with one exciting scene after another. At the same time, being an animator does possess a lot of advantage in directing a live-action movie. Unlike most action directors these days, Bird understands the foundation of getting the action set-piece pumped up by not relying on the shaky camerawork but the power of timing and the right frame. With the help of editor Paul Hirsch and cinematographer Robert Elswit, Bird has successfully orchestrating plenty of spectacular action sequences that constantly take the viewers' breath away.
The best scene in the movie is no doubt, the one that set in Dubai. It's a terrific, elaborately-staged moment where Ethan and his team are first seen at a room in the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. During this moment, Ethan has to scale the side of the building with nothing but a pair of adhesive gloves (blue is glue, red is glue -- as quoted by Benji). Shot in an IMAX camera, Robert Elswit's perfect camera placement is such a vertigo-inducing moment that it's really breathless to witness Ethan scaling against the glass wall one at a time (It is reported that Cruise does his own stunt here). The scene is quickly followed by a light but suspenseful moment where Ethan and his team members must deceive two sets of bad guys at a different floor, before it continues with an one-on-one catfight between Jane and Sabine in a hotel room. The action is then continues with a foot chase outside the Burj Khalifa in a simulated Dubai sandstorm engulfed all over the city. No doubt this spectacular Dubai scene alone is worth the price of admission.
While the following scene after the Dubai scene doesn't quite match the creative peak already sets midway, the movie remains as engaging as it goes. The climactic scene, for instance, which set in a multileveled parking garage, is an exciting moment where we see Ethan and Hendricks fight against each other, jumping cars from cars on an escalating floors while attempting to retrieve the briefcase contained the nuclear device.
At 49, Tom Cruise is as physically fit as ever. Here he performs most of his own stunts so effortlessly it's good to see him his trademark charm and air of confidence that once makes him among the most sought-after Hollywood star of his generation. Simon Pegg, who previously make quite an impression playing comic relief in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, is finally given enough screen time with some lively performance. Paula Patton, in the meantime, is a stunning addition to the series -- her best moment involves her in a Mumbai-set where she is required to seduce a wealthy Indian businessman (Anil Kapoor) to divert attention and attempt to get the code at the same time. Jeremy Renner continues to deliver another knockout performance whichever movie he is in these days. Here, he matches up against Tom Cruise well enough that if the recent news is lead to believe -- Renner will be a perfect replacement to take over the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise in the future, should Cruise is stepping aside one day.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL is a top-notch production and everything here is a fluid and rhythmic action movie with such coherence we hardly seen from others these days. But despite all the praiseworthy moments here, the movie remains a flawed effort. In what could have been a perfect masterpiece, it's a shame that Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec's screenplay is as typical as it goes. The bad guys, in particular, are more of listless villains that could have been given some ample opportunity to work on their characters. Then there's the unexpected talky epilogue which (neatly) wrapped up all the twists earlier -- especially the one involves with the death of Julia (where you will be surprised with two cameo appearances here).
Most critics has already hailed MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL as the best of the series. Well, not really. One of the best is more likely. That alone is already full of compliment -- and at the same time, it's good to see the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise is still going strong despite all the various setbacks.