Let it be known that 2011 was a record-setting year at the movies. No previous year in all of film history has had as many … sequels. Yes, a whopping 27 films either directly following or based on previous movies came to theaters this year.
“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is the 27th sequel to be released this year as well as the last of a record-setting five “four-quels,” yet rather than poetically epitomizing Hollywood’s pathetic reliance on unoriginal storytelling, this action flick actually provides a blueprint for using a franchise’s familiarity as a tool rather than a crutch.
Like all but one of its 2011 four-quel brethren, “Ghost Protocol” comes after a longer-than-usual hiatus between two films in a series, though this seems to be the m.o. for the “M:I” franchise, which averages 3.75 years between films. Most studios see a franchise-starting film’s success as lightning in a bottle. They sign directors and stars to three-film contracts to be completed within 6 and 9 years. When it then comes time for a fourth film, most studios enter a delusional “mid-franchise crisis mode,” unsure of what to do next. Reboots, prequels, spin-offs and the like all get tossed about and to varying degrees of effectiveness.
But the “M:I” series, whether intended or not, has to this point seen Cruise as the only immovable piece on the board, bringing on new directors, writers and co-stars each time, with just a few exceptions. Heck, with Jeremy Renner’s introduction here as Agent Brandt, you get the sense even Cruise is expendable as he reaches 50. The emphasis is clearly on creativity, not continuity, and the long-time patience has paid big dividends in this fourth go-around.
The entire “Ghost Protocol” script was trusted to two below-the-radar television writers in Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec and a director in Brad Bird who had never made a live-action film (he helmed Pixar’s “The Incredibles”). Fresh ideas, fresh perspective.
The premise of these films has not changed: Ethan Hunt and his team are trying to take down someone with an evil plan that has global consequences and they do so using all matter of gadgets and larger-than-life tactics. The difference is that the executive producers have put this tried concept in the hands of new and innovative individuals. All three names will get lots of phone calls in the days, weeks and months following this film’s theatrical run.
The stories focuses on Hunt and his IMF team of Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji (Simon Pegg), who find the government has disavowed them completely after a bomb obliterates the Kremlin in Russia at the same time they were infiltrating it. The one responsible is actually a man named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a former Soviet war games expert hell-bent on inciting global nuclear war. Completely cut off and “non-existent,” the IMF agents along with an IMF “analyst” in Renner’s Brandt must take them down solo in order to clear their names.
“Ghost Protocol” is miles from original in terms of plot — by far its weakest aspect — but it dreams big on the level of action and suspense. The exterior acrobatics on the Burj Khalifa in Dubai might go down as one of the most unforgettable scenes in action movie history, especially with the help of IMAX cameras. At one point Bird simply suspends the camera over Cruise’s head as he prepares to scale the outside of the hotel, which will inspire acrophobia in even the most iron-willed movie-watchers. Even the gadgets manage to stimulate the imagination, and we live in a world driven by smartphones. How we get from one excellent scene to the next is beside the point, but the payoff is exceptional. 27 sequels this year and I doubt any of the previous 26 can claim the same level of pure popcorn-munching, armrest-clenching entertainment.
Such unadulterated fun at the movies (and a willful submission to Hollywood secret-agenting) comes only with strong characters. Cruise wastes no time giving us Ethan Hunt back, an unstoppable force of strength, logic, cockiness and machismo. Regardless of his dwindling favor in the public eye, he can still lead an action film as good as anyone. Renner, Patton and Pegg exhibit perfect team chemistry; there’s not a moment where you feel as if you need to know more about their characters, though Renner’s back story does technically matter to one subplot and could’ve used more oomph.
If “Ghost Protocol” should be called out on anything (aside from the obscene number of head traumas that Ethan instantly recovers from throughout the entire movie), it should be the lifeless villain in Nyqvist who owns no screen time and his obsession with a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war. Cold War-era plots in 2011 should be completely off limits, but in a thrill ride of this magnitude, these are meaningless details.
Even with the over-the-top flourishes, especially in the final scenes in Mumbai, Bird has crafted something so essentially entertaining that movie-goers will fall in love with the spy genre all over again. Using IMAX cameras as tastefully as he does deserves credit as well; his primary objective with “Ghost Protocol” is the viewer experience and it shows throughout the film’s runtime.
In a time when more and more films are being made solely because of the proven success of existing properties, it’s assuring to know that there are ways this can be crafted into success. It seems hypocritical to say audiences want something both familiar and original, yet as proven here, it’s not impossible.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Directed by Brad Bird
Written by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, Bruce Geller (TV series)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg