Cruise’s Mission Impossible Victory

Brian DePalma’s 1996 Mission Impossible was a cartoon even though he didn’t direct it like one. The sheer, exhilarating pleasure of Mission Impossible IV (officially subtitled Ghost Protocol) comes from star-producer Tom Cruise’s ingenious decision to cast animation master Brad Bird. This is easily Bird best film since The Iron Giant and the best parts of The Incredibles; it’s even good enough to forgive Ratatouille.

It was clear from Ratatouille that Bird’s animation skills had fallen into a Disney-Pixar mousetrap. Cruise rescues Bird and Bird returns the favor. When Ethan Hunt’s Impossible Missions force reduced to three (Paula Patton, Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner–all MVPs) attempt preventing a Soviet madman from initiating nuclear Armageddon, the resemblance to James Bond intrigue brings out Bird’s best–that tongue-in-chic use of space and speed that gave The Incrediblessuch pop-cult zest.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Whereas DePalma’s hyper clear visual style was gravely emotional even when the action was absurd, it didn’t quite transform the TV-based material into the Fritz Lang revelation DePalma intended (despite the helicopter/train Chunnel sequence’s very obvious reference to Lang’s 1929 Spies). Bird’s movie is lighter, yet more visionary. Using IMAX camera technology for the central Dubai sequence where Ethan reppels down the 2716 foot Burj Khalifa tower, Bird fulfills his gift for space and composition without being limited to drawing-board flatness. The realism of the spectacular stunts and vertiginous montage between simultaneous actions by Ethan’s crewmates make this the most invigorating big-budget American action movie in years. Plus, it’s cast with actors who provide character gravitas: from Ethan’s physical and moral commitment onwards, they credibly convey genuine stress–Patton’s love-grief, Pegg’s geek-courage, Renner’s wonk-regret are perfect for the apolitical essence of the series.

Co-producer J.J. Abrams tried and failed to make a deluxe TV-movie in Star Trek. Abrams simply lacks a cinematic eye comparable to Bird (comparable to DePalma? Forget it.) Bird’s conceptual staging of a prison break, a choreographed seduction at a ball in India and a chase during a desert dust storm display a big-screen sense of movement that harkens back to great animation as well as silent movie slapstick. Ethan’s remarkable reppelling stunt is truer to the spirit of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last than the tiresome homage that Scorsese crams into Hugo. And the large-scale sleight-of-hand sequence in an ultra-modern parking garage pays witty, bruising homage to the delightful acrobatic auto-factory chase that Cruise tumbled through in Minority Report.

If Ghost Protocol was any better, it would match the splendid advance of action movie aesthetics that Luc Besson has spearheaded in the Transporter movies (especially Olivier Megaton’s Godardian Transporter 3) as well as Angel-A, Taken, From Paris with Love and this year’s terrific Colombiana. These recent heroic action narrative innovations by Besson, Paul W.S. Anderson and Neveldine-Taylor are accomplishing what DePalma was after. Hollywood is slow on the uptake. Tarantino, Eli Roth and their ilk can only amp-up brutality; they lack visual wit. But in Ghost Protocol, Cruise and Bird are catching up. It is a rare pleasure to salute a Hollywood action movie that gets it right.