Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011)
Falling Off Skyscrapers Sometimes Hurts a Bit
What makes Tom Cruise run — run harder and run faster, leaping from one building and dangling off another, the world’s tallest — as he does to exhausting, unnerving effect in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” his latest exercise in extreme performance? The fourth in the franchise, this “Mission” has a solid cast, including a notable new co-star in Jeremy Renner; a new director, Brad Bird; and a story that’s as nonsensical as any in the series. Mostly, though, it has Mr. Cruise hurtling through the movie as if his life depended on it, which, to judge by the hard line of his jaw, his punishingly fit body and the will etched into his every movement, may be what’s at stake.
It’s fitting that Mr. Bird, the director of the Pixar movies “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” has taken over the reins of the franchise for his live-action directing debut. The “Mission: Impossible” movies belong to that outlandish, sometimes cartoonish class of action adventures in which lesser, Bond-like heroes walk or race from fiery explosions in between locking and loading, kissing and killing, and killing some more. The films, spun off the 1960s television show, fondly remembered for its rubber masks and Lalo Schifrin’s brilliant, pulsating theme music, added Mr. Cruise, who in the 15 years since the first installment has tumbled from his top spot as the world’s biggest movie star to lag behind neo-action figures like Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp.
Mr. Cruise may be somewhat down (certainly his smile has dimmed), yet he’s scarcely out. That’s partly because of Mr. Bird, who has given this movie a self-aware levity that’s intended to clear away the bummer blues of the last “Mission,” five years ago. Directed by J. J. Abrams, who is also a producer of this movie, the third film skewed the series too dark with a nihilistic baddie (chilled to shivering by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a nightmarish torture scene. It also burdened Mr. Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, with a wife (Michelle Monaghan), an unwise move — American action heroes, latter-day fantasies of our native rugged individualism, walk alone, not down the aisle — which suggested that the soon-to-be-remarried Mr. Cruise was borrowing a chapter from his own life.
The new movie, written by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, both alumni of Mr. Abrams’s television show “Alias” (mostly), ditches the wife and gets back to action basics with globe-trotting, nifty gadgets, high-flying stunts and less loquacious villainy (Michael Nyqvist). (It was also partly shot in Imax, which doesn’t really enhance anything.)
Ethan, after being broken out of a Moscow prison, where he had been idling among hordes of bull-necked Ivans and Igors, sets off on another mission with an old teammate, the tech whiz Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and the obligatory pretty lady, Agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton). The mission goes bust and boom, as does a debriefing with Ethan’s boss (Tom Wilkinson, uncredited), whose murder finds Ethan and his team blackballed (if still sleuthing) and keeping company with an intelligence analyst, William Brandt (Mr. Renner).
Mr. Renner, who played the main bomb specialist in “The Hurt Locker,” eases effortlessly into the blockbuster register, where star charisma and presence like Mr. Cruise’s matter more than emotionally selling a scene. Mr. Renner has to do some actual acting because of the role (surprise: there’s more to Brandt than a suit), and his low-key performance is a dividend in a movie in which almost all human interactions take exaggerated form, with more throttling than talking, or so it seems. Mr. Renner isn’t an obvious action type — he’s good-looking rather than roguish or boyishly pretty — but as soon as he rolls up his sleeves and picks up a gun, it’s obvious that he’s qualified for the job.
For his part, Mr. Cruise seems comfortable resuming his franchise duties, though there’s a palpable difference in his affect, even from the last movie. He still radiates intensity bordering on mania, but without the familiar “what, me worry?” air of invincibility. Maybe it’s age: he turns 50 next year, or perhaps Mr. Bird’s approach doesn’t sit well with him, even if it also fits. The wolfish Cruise smile seems tighter, at times reluctant, despite Mr. Bird’s efforts to lighten the mood with banter (much of it supplied by a chattering Mr. Pegg). Over the years Mr. Cruise, a divinely superficial presence in pop fodder like “Top Gun,” has grown progressively heavier, weighted down by stardom, ambition and the misstep of turning his personal life into a public drama. At times he can feel leaden.
Unexpectedly, though, his age and inescapable gravitas work for “Ghost Protocol,” partly because they invest the outrageous stunts with a real sense of risk. Mr. Cruise’s primary job in the “Mission” series is to embody a not-quite-ordinary man whose powers are at once extraordinary and completely believable, a no-sweat feat in the first few films.
Here, however, when Ethan ziplines off a building onto a truck and then rolls hard onto the street, Mr. Bird — while borrowing more than a little from the “Roadrunner” cartoons — also makes you aware of the fragility of the body ricocheting on screen, absorbing every blow for your entertainment. And when Mr. Cruise hangs off the even taller building, what you see isn’t just a man doing a crazy stunt but also one poignantly denying his own mortality.
“Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Largely bloodless, if at times extreme, violence, including gunplay and a fatal push from a skyscraper. Those with acrophobia beware.
Opens on Friday at Imax theaters nationwide.
Directed by Brad Bird; written by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Michael Giacchino, “Mission: Impossible” theme composed by Lalo Schifrin; production design by Jim Bissell; costumes by Michael Kaplan; produced by Tom Cruise, J. J. Abrams and Bryan Burk; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes.