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Dissecting the Classics – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

July 27, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

The sixth Mission: Impossible film hits theaters this week, which is always a cause for excitement in this writer’s opinion. It’s riding a wave of critical praise, which is always nice to see. So, naturally, there was only one real option to cover this week… sort of.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Wide Release Date: December 16, 2011
Directed By: Brad Bird
Written By: Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec
Produced By: Tom Cruise, J.J. Abrams & Bryan Burk
Cinematography By: Robert Elswit
Edited By: Paul Hirsch
Music By: Michael Giacchino
Production Company: Bad Robot Productions and Skydance Productions
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Starring:
Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt
Jeremy Renner as William Brandt
Simon Pegg as Benji Dunn
Paula Patton as Jane Carter
Michael Nyqvist as Kurt Hendricks

What Do We All Know?

Mission: Impossible was a popular spy TV series that ran from 1988 to 1990, but I suspect most people my age (30 and under) think of the movie series with Tom Cruise first. Brian de Palma directed the first film (1996), a movie which had a mixed critical reception but was also the third biggest hit of the year. M:I:2 was directed by John Woo and was the biggest worldwide hit of 2000. M:I:3 served as J.J. Abrams’ debut as a film director, while Ghost Protocol saw Brad Bird transition from animation to live action, while the last two films have been directed by Christopher McQuarrie. The last three have consistently landed in top ten money makers of the year, proving that in spite of his personal life, Tom Cruise is a dependable box office draw in at least one role.

So I guess the obvious question is, why Ghost Protocol? Well, it really comes down to quality. I like the first Mission: Impossible well enough but the series has gotten better over time. Rogue Nation is as good or better than Ghost Protocol, but I don’t think I’m ready to jump into 2015 for what is basically a “retro review” column just yet. So the fourth one seemed to be the best mix of quality and actually being old enough to consider a classic that is worth revisiting. Seven years and two movies later, how does the fourth Mission: Impossible hold up?

What Went Right?

A quick recap is probably in order. Mission: Impossible is about a group of spies led by Ethan Hunt (Cruise) working together to stop criminals who are usually planning an act of terror against the U.S. or at least targeting IMF (Impossible Missions Force). They usually solve these issues through a combination of computer skills, sophisticated disguises, fantastic technology, and the insane stunt work of Tom Cruise. It’s less serious than Daniel Craig Bond movies but more serious than Pierce Brosnan Bond movies. And an argument could be made that it is the most consistent action franchise of the last two decades.

Ghost Protocol starts right in the thick of the action as the team of Benji, Brandt and Carter bust Ethan out of prison. At first he’s pissed because he was undercover, but when he realizes a Russian terrorist is after launch codes to start a nuclear war between his country and the States, he’s ready to save the day. Ethan’s got to get used to a team he doesn’t trust and cope with malfunctioning equipment if he wants to succeed at this mission. The high stakes chase takes the team to the Kremlin in Moscow (think the CIA for Russia), to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and Mumbai as they hunt “Cobalt” down.

So, what’s so great about this one compared to the rest? Well, for starters, this isn’t just about Ethan Hunt. Tom Cruise is still the star and gives a great performance, yes. But Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner have plenty to add with their characters. Renner’s Agent Brandt has an entire arc to go through, as does Agent Jane Carter. They have skills that Ethan doesn’t have, which makes for more complex and interesting setpieces. But in between the action, we also get solid storytelling and character building, which I think is a big weakness in the first two movies. The team dynamic is something that distinguishes the Mission: Impossible series from other spy films, and I love seeing it work as well as it does here.

This segues nicely into another aspect of the film which I think makes it distinctive amongst other entries in the series. As Hunt nicely sums up at the end, nothing works right on the mission except for the team. Four films in, fans are well aware of some of the familiar trappings of the series; the self-destructing messages that assign the missions, the nearly implausible character hacking, and the iconic face masks. The screenplay never misses a chance to have the tech fail in some way, sometimes for humorous effect, sometimes to ramp up the tension, and sometimes to just prevent an easy out. While cool gadgets are definitely part of the escapism the spy genre provides, it’s nice to see this formula played with in this movie. It feels just a little more relatable, just a little more grounded.

Don’t confuse the term “grounded” for boring though; I simply mean that the deliriously fun antics feel a little more realistic than one could expect them to. If anything, this is one of the lighthearted and purposefully silly entries in the franchise, which I think has more than a little to do with director Brad Bird and actor Simon Pegg. Whether the team is busting Ethan out of prison, infiltrating the Kremlin or trying to seduce a skeevy rich guy while Renner magnetically floats through a giant computer, there’s always room for a few laughs among the tension and action. Balancing those moments with spectacles like the giant sandstorm, the final car chase or the film’s most famous stunt sequence helps Ghost Protocol from feeling stale.

But of course, the big draw of the movie is seeing Tom Cruise do his own insane stunts. While this one isn’t quite the nonstop action movies that the third or fifth ones are, it does have perhaps the most iconic, ambitious set piece in the series. The Burj Khalifa sequence was shot on location; Tom Cruise is really crawling up, running across and jumping off of the tallest building in the world, and the only thing digital is the removal of his safety equipment. Now, you could not pay me enough money to walk on the walls of the Burj Khalifa, but you can bet that I will pay money to watch Cruise do it. Whatever one thinks of Cruise as an actor or a person, the fact that he really does do these crazy stunts is worthy of respect, and certainly the main drawing force behind this series.

What Went Wrong?

Ghost Protocol doesn’t make many missteps, but there are two areas where the series has historically struggled. With the exception of Philip Seymour Hoffman in M:i:III, none of the villains are particularly strong. In this case, it’s a real shame that the late Michael Nyqvist didn’t get some more screen time to flesh out his character more. On the flip side, Jane Carter does have a solid backstory and a respectable B-Plot with the assassin played by Léa Seydoux. And yet… she’s still pretty boring. I think this comes down to casting, as Paula Patton is just kind of… there. She’s miles better than Thandie Newton in M:i:2 but nowhere near as good Rebecca Ferguson in Rogue Nation. I also would have enjoyed more than a cameo from Luther Stickell; Ving Rhames is one of the best parts of this series.

And In Summary…

It may not be the first Mission, or the best one (that probably goes to Rogue Nation, for now). But Ghost Protocol is a great example of how this series has evolved and adapted over 22 years and continues to go strong. Tom Cruise is the centerpiece, the glue that holds it together, but a talented cast of fun new characters and an ever-rotating director’s chair has kept things fresh. The stuff that worked in the first three movies is even more epic, and the stuff that didn’t work is either dropped or improved upon. Mission: Impossible gets better with age.

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