Achieving the Impossible
By Carl Kozlowski
For the past six years, Tom Cruise has been on a seemingly impossible mission: to reclaim his former status as the most popular movie star on the planet. For after a 20-year run of hits ranging from Risky Business to War of the Worlds, he suddenly went bonkers on Oprah and lectured Today host Matt Lauer on the evils of psychiatry even as he seemed a bit crazy himself.
Since then, Cruise has released Mission Impossible 3, which grossed much less than the first two films in the spy-movie series, despite being the most whiz-bang entry yet, and couldn’t even hit his standard minimum gross of $100 million for his last two films, Valkyrie and Knight and Day.
But now Cruise is back as super spy Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, hoping to prove that his own career hasn’t faded into a specter forever.
The good news is the new movie delivers on the action front. The bad news is the entire reason why Hunt is hop scotching the globe this time is to stop nuclear missiles from being launched by a rogue Russian, making the movie feel like a Cold War relic whenever it stops to deal with the plot mechanics.
Thankfully, that doesn’t happen often in this kind of film. The film opens with an unusual sequence in which Ethan wakes up in a Russian prison—it’s never fully explained why, but others say he has disappeared after the loss of his wife in the prior MI movie—and stages a breakout in which he helps instigate a prison riot set to the tune of Dean Martin’s classic “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” playing over the prison’s loudspeakers.
This attempt at wit is more confusing than funny at the beginning, but within another 10 minutes or so, the film snaps fully into place as Ethan’s team is lined up, including the return of tech-geek sidekick Benji played by British comic Simon Pegg, who successfully adds humor throughout the rest of the film. Ethan and the geek impersonate Russian generals to infiltrate the Kremlin on less than five hours’ notice. But when things go wrong in Ethan Hunt’s world, they go very wrong—and his team finds itself framed for a chain-reaction series of explosions that decimate the iconic Russian seat of power.
The disaster has thrust U.S.-Russian relations immediately back into Cold War-level distrust, forcing the U.S. president to exercise a policy called ghost protocol against the MI team. They have officially ceased to exist or be funded. And while they’re welcome to try and clean up their mess, if they get caught, killed or foiled, the government will completely disavow them. Soon, the four (also including Jeremy Renner and the ass-kicking Paula Patton) are off on a worldwide chase to far-flung locales like India and Dubai to stop the missiles from taking off.
These are dangerous stakes, and add a welcome dose of vulnerability to the proceedings. Each film in the MI series intentionally has a different blockbuster director at the helm in order to ensure that each film has its own unique feel, and director Brad Bird makes his live-action filmmaking debut after directing successful animated films including The Incredibles and Ratatouille.
Bird’s use of humor and the addition of human error to the plot gives Ghost Protocol an unpredictable kick that often makes up for the standard basic plot. And the big action set-pieces—including a battle royale in a skyscraper hotel, an utterly stunning sequence in which Ethan has to run, jump and swing from floor to floor of the hotel using only magnetic gloves and a cord for support, and an inventive final fight in a massive parking garage with constantly shifting levels—are jaw-dropping fun as well.
Cruise and his studio, Paramount Pictures, perhaps wisely hedged their bets against a fickle public by making sure Cruise wasn’t front and center this time around. But in a holiday season lacking in action movies, Cruise ultimately succeeds in showing
that he’s still one of the most charismatic and proficient stars and producers on the planet. And that’s plenty to make this film well worth watching.