Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: Brad Bird's unique and precise vision elevates "Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol" to dizzying new heights

Film Rating: A–

Brad Bird was born to direct a Mission: Impossible movie. 

That fact becomes readily apparent five minutes into “Ghost Protocol,” as soon as one realizes that Bird has, indeed, committed to scoring a violent prison break sequence to the sounds of Dean Martin.  No other director could infuse such brutal fight choreography with such a passionate sense of fun.  In his animated works, “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille,” Bird proved he was willing to try just about anything to make each and every scene as engaging as possible, and what has made his filmography so consistently great is that his experiments always work.  They are filled top-to-bottom with ridiculously entertaining creativity, and though he’s only directed three features, those three were enough to establish one of the most distinctive cinematic signatures in the business.  The big question going into “Ghost Protocol” was whether or not Bird would be able to transfer that signature from animation to live-action.

I refer you again to Dean Martin serenading Tom Cruise as he fights his way through a cavalcade of violent Russian inmates.  Or the bombastically jubilant opening title sequence, or the hilarious bit of future-tech Simon Pegg’s character uses to sneak into the Kremlin, or a brilliant suspense set-piece that finds Cruise climbing the tallest building in the world, or a chase where, I kid you not, Tom Cruise outruns a sandstorm….in IMAX!!!  No director working today is crazy enough to think these sorts of things up, let alone execute them all so flawlessly.  Brad Bird’s voice is heard loud and clear in every frame of “Ghost Protocol,” and perhaps unsurprisingly, his voice is the first to wring out all the latent potential of the Mission: Impossible franchise.  Bird’s incredible sense of spatial relations in set pieces gives this film the strongest team dynamic in the series, and his sense of freewheeling fun allows the story to go big without seeming implausible or desperate.  Indeed, it’s the tone Bird so completely nails here, making this the most endlessly entertaining mission yet. 

More thoughts coming up after the jump….

The heightened importance of team dynamics is made clear right away, as the film opens with a small IMF team breaking Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of prison.  I dare not spoil why he’s there, but once reunited with old teammate Benji (Simon Pegg) and newcomer Jane (Paula Patton), Hunt and company accept a mission to acquire intel about ‘Cobalt,’ a mysterious villain, by breaking into the Kremlin.  Before they can complete the mission, however, Cobalt himself breaks in and steals the codes to Russian nuclear warheads.  To erase his trail, he bombs the Kremlin, framing Hunt and his team for the crime.  Russia sees this as an act of war, and the President of the United States is forced to initiate Ghost Protocol, dissolving the IMF and disavowing all of its agents.  With no back-up and few resources, Hunt and his team must find Cobalt and retrieve the nuclear codes before Cobalt uses them to initiate a global nuclear war. 

Despite the severity of the threat, “Ghost Protocol” feels like the most basic, no-frills ‘mission’ in the entire series.  And that’s a very good thing.  I like the first “Mission: Impossible” movie, loath the second, and more or less love the third, but none of them get the formula quite right.  The first is a solo action vehicle for Tom Cruise, God only knows what the second film is, and the third, while more team-oriented and creative than the others, has too much ‘summer blockbuster’ DNA in its system to be a perfect Mission: Impossible movie.  “Ghost Protocol” goes back to basics.  The world is in trouble, an IMF team is given their mission, and they come up with an elaborate, dangerous plan to save the day, repeating that last step if their first plan doesn’t work out.  Bird and company effectively up the tension to cinematic levels by making the threat particularly treacherous and stripping our heroes of back-up, but the film’s skeleton is still formed by the basics of a simple M:I TV episode.

Therefore, this is the first entry in the series that can truly be described as an ensemble piece.  Tom Cruise is the star, but this time, he’s not the only one getting suspended above the floor, coming to blows with bad guys, or firing weapons.  The only action he lays exclusive claim to is running real fast, because, let’s face it, nobody runs as exhilaratingly as Tom Cruise.  Otherwise, the awesomeness is spread around the whole team, and this is undoubtedly the finest crew assembled for a M:I film.  Simon Pegg’s Benji is promoted to main character, providing both comic relief and all the requisite tech/hacker skills; Paula Patton’s Jane is the smart, kick-ass female carrying baggage from her last mission; and most exciting of all is Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”) as Brandt, an analyst whose skills mysteriously rival Ethan’s.  Cruise, the best guy in the business if you want a great ‘movie star’ performance, leads and holds the team together, but it’s the interpersonal dynamics that really sell this installment, and these four actors have tremendous chemistry together.

Then there are the set pieces.  My God, the set pieces.  Each and every one runs many layers deep, with each member of the team working a different action beat, and each sequence spirals into increasingly ridiculous – and thrilling – territory as they go along.  What makes them work so well is Bird’s total directorial command.  No matter how busy a sequence gets, the placement of the teammates is always clear, the action well shot, and the editing easy to follow; it’s never a confusing mish-mash of sound and imagery, a la Michael Bay.  Everything everybody does carries weight at all times, and no matter how big things get, the mission-based structure of each sequence always lies at the heart of things.  That clarity, combined with a lighthearted, inviting tone, allows Bird to go wherever he wants with these set pieces.  A blindingly brilliant half-hour adventure in Dubai combines a climb on the world tallest building, a conversation brimming with slow-burn tension, fistfights, car chases, foot chases, and a raging sandstorm all in one.  Under normal circumstances, that combination just shouldn’t work, but with Bird at the helm, it’s one of the most exciting and inventive sequences ever committed to film. 

Not just any film, mind you, but 70mm IMAX film, the highest resolution in the world.  Christopher Nolan first experimented with IMAX in “The Dark Knight,” filming about 25 minutes of his masterpiece in the format, and Bird does the same thing here, using the size and depth of IMAX resolution to enhance the big action sequences.  Bird is just as effective as Nolan, if not more so thanks to where Bird chooses to deploy his cameras, and I still find IMAX infinitely more compelling than 3D.  If Cruise’s climb on the tallest building in the world doesn’t induce vertigo in you on IMAX, then you are blind.  It’s as simple as that, and it’s a feat neither 35mm nor 3D could accomplish.  “Ghost Protocol” proves that IMAX, when used to its full potential, is king.

As impressive as Bird’s imagination and execution are, he is let down on occasion by the writing.  Andre Nemec and Josh Appelbaum have fashioned a competent script, but not a great one.  Exposition flies by far too fast at times, leaving many important story points unclear, and a few set pieces begin without a clearly defined purpose.  The villain, played well enough by Michael Nyqvist, is entirely undeveloped, his motives hazy, and the final scene is a bit of a cop-out, albeit not an egregious one.  It’s clear to me that, though this is a solid script, it’s far from a remarkable one, and in the hands of a less capable director or cast, it would make for a serviceable thriller at best.

But “Ghost Protocol” is so much more than a serviceable thriller.  It is a modern action classic, a sterling example of the genre at its best, making it apparent that Brad Bird was always destined to join forces with the Mission: Impossible franchise.  His efforts, along with those of Cruise, Renner, Patton and Pegg – and, of course, composer Michael Giacchino, providing a score perfectly in tune with the imagery and energy of the film – elevate “Ghost Protocol” to greatness.  It’s not just the best of the series, but one of the most enjoyable, awe-inspiring cinematic experiences of 2011.  It’s not Bird’s deepest or smartest film, but putting himself in the running for the title of “best contemporary live-action blockbuster director” his first time behind real cameras is one hell of an accomplishment. 

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is currently playing in IMAX theatres nationwide.  It will expand to regular 35mm and digital theatres on Wednesday, December 21st. 

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