‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ a Thrilling Surprise

The ” Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps getting better and better which each successive sequel, something few other franchises can ever lay claim to. The first one directed by Brian De Palma had a confusing storyline but spectacular action set pieces. The second one had a plot which was easier to follow and the signature action ballet of director John Woo. Part three gave us the directorial debut of J.J. Abrams and had a stronger plot, a very effective villain in Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and seemed to remember what made the original television series work so well. Each movie has its own unique identity which allows for a longevity which, after the third one, seemed to be growing thin.

But “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” turns out to be the best of the bunch as it features some of the most ingenious action scenes I’ve seen in a long time. It also has the added benefit of being filmed in part with IMAX cameras which given scenes a real life feel which they wouldn’t get with your average 35mm camera. Just when you think Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt had run out of steam along with the franchise, he and director Brad Bird (making his live action debut) thrill us in a highly unexpected way.

It appears that Hunt’s retirement from the IMF after “Mission: Impossible 3″ didn’t last long, and we find him at this movie’s beginning in a Moscow prison throwing a rock at the wall like he’s Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” But he is soon sprung from his cell with the help of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, reprising his role from part 3) and agent Jane Carter (“Precious’” Paula Patton). We find out that Hunt was imprisoned for a mission gone wrong, and that he has since become estranged from his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) for mysterious reasons. Just like Jack Bauer from “24,” Hunt can’t stay away from what he does best when danger rears its ugly head.

Hunt and Dunn end up infiltrating the Kremlin in order to locate files of a nemesis with the code name of Cobalt. But this however goes horribly wrong when the Kremlin is blown to smithereens and the entire IMF is disavowed. Hunt and his team are to take blame for the attack but are allowed to escape in order to locate Cobalt and stop a nuclear war. This time, Hunt and company have no support to rely on as they forced to work on their own.

As with the previous entry, Cruise has come to realize he needs to let other actors shine in this series and to not do all the hard work himself. Seeing Pegg’s character get upgraded from techno nerd to field agent is a treat as he becomes more than just comic relief. Paula Patton embodies her agent character of Jane Carter convincingly and gets to kick some serious ass in scenes, one of which has her taking on a female assassin in something more than just your average catfight.

The best addition however to this “Mission: Impossible” movie is Jeremy Renner who plays William Brandt, a chief analyst for the IMF. Renner, whose career has been on a serious upswing since “The Hurt Locker” and “The Town”, is great here. Whether or not he is going to replace Cruise in this series is another story. Even he gets a big action set piece as his character proves to know more than he lets on. His secrets threaten to be devastating to others if they are revealed, and Renner does excellent work showing the turmoil Brandt endures as he is faced with a whole other kind of impossible mission.

The main antagonist of this sequel is Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist of the original “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”) who is bent on starting a nuclear war in order to bring about the next evolution of the human race. Nyqvist brings a strong villainy to this role which makes you sneer at his presence whenever he’s onscreen. However, he’s almost upstaged by Léa Seydoux who portrays French assassin Sabine Moreau. Her cold glare penetrates your inner defenses with little difficulty, and you have to put on your best poker face in her presence to stay alive (and even that might not be enough).

But the real star of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is director Brad Bird himself. You’d think that stepping outside of the world of animation in which he made “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” and “The Iron Giant” would leave him at a spectacular disadvantage; what you can get away in that realm of filmmaking does not necessarily translate as well to real life situations. But when watching what’s on display here, it’s clear that Bird allows nothing to stand in his way in terms of what can be accomplished, and he scores one amazing action sequence after another.

The one sequence which needs to be acknowledged above others is when Cruise is scaling the Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest building in the world. The IMAX cameras give this moment a reality like no other, and that feeling of intense vertigo is hard to ignore. Seriously, I felt like I was outside of that building with Cruise as he climbed up with nothing but suction gloves. If there was a more unnervingly intense scene in any action movie this past year, then I’ve missed it. I had trouble getting to sleep that night because that crazy stunt was still on my mind.

While this action sequel will still thrill on the regular silver screen, it’s imperative that you check this out in IMAX if you can. There’s about a half hour or so of footage shot in this format, and Bird makes it all count. Aside from Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building, there’s the scene where the Kremlin explodes which literally takes your breath away. While many still complain of IMAX feeling like a rip off with its high ticket prices, it’s worth the extra money in a way 3D could only dream of being at this point.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is a big surprise in that this franchise looked like it had been used up for all it was worth. But Cruise and company successfully revive it by giving us characters to care about and root for, and they outdo themselves with amazingly insane stunts. Regardless of what you may think of Cruise as a person these days (many of my friends can’t stand him), he still puts on a good show even as he grows visibly older. Just when you thought he was out, he pulls himself back in!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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