Thursday, December 29, 2011

701 - Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol review

There was the kind of moment in “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol” a critic almost never sees. Invincible superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) finds himself ascending the world’s tallest building in Dubai, only he’s on the outside, and doing so with the aid of an unreliable pair of gloves that give him a Spider-Man-esque purchase on the glass. If there’s ever a time one needs reliable equipment, it’s climbing a building over 120 stories tall. When the gloves fail, he falls, and I found myself in that rarest spot: panicked for a character that I know can’t, for any reason, die.

That speaks much not just to the construction of that amazing sequence, but to the film as a whole. Each “Mission: Impossible” installment has had its own distinct vibe courtesy of different name directors, though this entry, the first live action feature by Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatoullie”), seems uniquely inspired. The action set pieces, including a Russian prison breakout and a fight in a high-tech parking garage, are realized with the creativity and energy necessary to make this not only one of, if not the best of the series, but also the quality to return Tom Cruise’s to where it once was, as mandatory event viewing.

Cruise, whose career has lost much of its luster following disastrous publicity and years of under-performance at the box office, clearly went into “Ghost Protocol” with the intent that this would put him back on top, and if grosses and critical consensus are any indication, it worked. I’ve contended for years that Cruise’s status as an iconic megastar have belied his actual effectiveness as an actor; how many other stars have an intensity that, when suffused with wonderful characters such as those he portrayed in “Magnolia” and “Collateral,” can make something mesmerizing?

Here, Cruise actually hung from the Burj Khalifa, albeit securely fastened with a litany of cables. Nonetheless, he was out there, and Robert Elwit’s photography makes certain the audience appreciates the severity of the distance. In “Mission: Impossible II,” Cruise famously allowed a knife to be thrust within a quarter of an inch of his eye. Actually, he insisted. Some actors are hailed as brave for performances where they allow themselves to be photographed without makeup, but Cruise has actually risked life and limb, just like his characters.

The story involves Hunt and his team pursuing an evil Swede (Michael Nyqvist) bent on triggering a nuclear war, ostensibly to speed up the evolution of the human race. His team consists of the specific types that populate most cinematic spy groups: a beautiful woman (Paula Patton), a witty computer geek (Simon Pegg), and a guy played by an actor who would be the leader in a much cheaper movie (Jeremy Renner).

My question about the villain: what about the areas of the world unlikely to be directly involved in this exchange? If the Swede is an environmentalist, is the destruction wreaked by thousands of nuclear warheads worth the trade?

These films aren’t renowned for their story, and in fairness, this one’s isn’t particularly bad, though it’s not especially good, either. Especially problematic is the epilogue, which I’ve been offering a cash reward to anyone who can adequately explain its logic to me. No winners, so far.

But never mind. Blockbuster action films with great stories are sadly rare (think “Inception”), but these pictures triumph financially because of the wonder they provide, the escapism. Right now, this is the movie to see on the big screen. Just beware if you have a fear of heights.

4 out of 5

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