“Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”: At long last, the year’s best action flick

Don't count out the star or the franchise! The latest "Mission: Impossible" is a terrific holiday surprise

Topics: Movies, Action movies, Thrillers, Our Picks, Tom Cruise,

"Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol": At long last, the year's best action flickTom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol"

Take an aging star often viewed as a weirdo, a director who’s never made a live-action film and the fourth installment of a 15-year-old movie franchise whose roots go back to 1960s television. What do you get? Well, it certainly could have been a total disaster, or an awkward nostalgia exercise, but instead “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” is something even more unlikely: the most exciting action flick of the year, by a huge margin. Director Brad Bird brings all the wit, style and imagination of his animated films (“Ratatouille,” “The Incredibles” and “The Iron Giant”) to this slick secret-agent techno-fantasy. As for 49-year-old Tom Cruise, he’s surely ready for a comeback after weathering the worst publicity of his celebrity career. He’s back in his comfort zone here as renegade super-spy Ethan Hunt, who is exactly the kind of charismatic, overamped control freak we all believe (rightly or wrongly) that Cruise is too.

I’m not going to claim any degree of redeeming social value or trenchant political critique in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.” It reflects a 21st-century climate of profound paranoia, high-tech espionage and renewed superpower tension between Russia and the United States, and that’s all accurate enough. But Cruise, as the executive producer who controls this franchise, is crafty enough to avoid anything that smacks of ideology; the bad guy here isn’t an Arab jihadi or a Moscow crime lord or a deranged American general or anything like that. Indeed, he’s almost a standard-issue Bond-style supervillain: Hendricks, aka Cobalt (Michael Nyqvist, of the Swedish “Dragon Tattoo” trilogy), is a Scandinavian scientist gone nutso, who has decided that the only way to save civilization is to erase it with nuclear war and start over again. (I find myself strangely willing to entertain this argument, on the intellectual plane — but the surgery required does seem radical.)

As the story begins, Cruise’s Agent Hunt is out of the picture, moldering in a Russian prison on unknown charges. (Remember, any IMF agent who gets caught is disavowed by the U.S. government: “Who, him? No idea; total bad apple. Go ahead and lock him up.”) Another team of agents, headed by newcomer Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and Anglo tech-geek and comic relief Benjy Dunn (Simon Pegg), run a mission that goes badly wrong in Budapest, thanks to an ice-blond French assassin (Léa Seydoux). Then they’re sent to Russia to spring Hunt from prison, in the first of several terrific action set pieces, whereupon they pick up their next assignment, a self-destructing video message (of course) in a decrepit Soviet-era phone booth (of course). It’s a simple mission: Break into a high-security archive inside the Kremlin and extract some important records before Cobalt gets them.

I shouldn’t give away much more, except to say that however ingenious and delightful the IMF’s plots and schemes are in this part of the movie, Cobalt is a step ahead of them the whole time. He sabotages their Kremlin break-in in spectacular fashion, not merely staging a headline-grabbing terrorist attack but making it bear the fingerprints of Ethan and friends and pushing the Russians and Americans right to the brink of war. This initiates “Ghost Protocol,” as Tom Wilkinson helpfully explains during a brief appearance as “the Secretary,” a shadowy U.S. government official in charge of the superspooks. Instead of pretending to be unauthorized, now the IMF team really is unauthorized. They’re supposed to stop Cobalt from blowing up the world, but without any government support or sanction or information, covert or otherwise.

Bird’s direction has such brio, and Cruise’s performance as the unkempt, long-haired version of Ethan is so relaxed and charming, that even when “Ghost Protocol” resorts to empty showmanship it feels like good fun rather than pure pandering. (The impressive cinematography, much of it in huge-format IMAX, is by Robert Elswit.) Oh, I could explain how and why Ethan winds up climbing the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the world’s tallest building, using only magnetic “gecko gloves” that don’t quite work as well as advertised. But does it really matter? It’s a dazzling sequence with a smashing conclusion, that left the audience of cynical Manhattanites, at the preview screening I attended, first breathless and then cheering. (Cruise is such a madman that much of what we see in the film is really him stuck to the windows of the 2,700-foot skyscraper, although I’m not saying that stunt work and digital trickery aren’t also involved.)

First of all, Hunt, Carter and Dunn — joined by Jeremy Renner as Brandt, a CIA analyst with a troubled past — try to run a complicated sting on Cobalt, who is meeting the French killer-babe assassin in Dubai to haggle over stolen Russian nuclear codes he needs to launch his yearned-for Armageddon. Then there’s a pulse-pounding chase, on foot and by sports car, through a zero-visibility sandstorm. And then — what the hell? — the tour of nefarious night spots of the developing world moves on to Mumbai, where a lecherous Indian tycoon (Anil Kapoor) hosts a lavish party, Renner’s character dons magnetic chain-mail underwear, and Cobalt hopes to use a second-string telecom satellite to launch a Russian nuclear strike on San Francisco. (I wouldn’t call Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec’s screenplay profound drama, but it conceals its twists artfully.)

My only questions about Brad Bird as a director are: 1) Why the hell has he only made three movies in 12 years; and 2) If Tom Cruise saw that he could do this, why didn’t anybody else? Given Bird’s excellent animated features, you’d expect him to be adept with humor, character byplay and rapid-fire storytelling, and you’d be right. (He does especially well using Pegg’s character as the foil who continually punctures the hardass atmosphere.) But this movie has not just one or two but four or five of the most coherent and exciting action sequences in recent history, culminating with a beautifully choreographed final face-off between Cobalt and Ethan in a vertical Mumbai parking garage. Looking back at the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, each of the films has had a strong directorial signature, beginning with Brian De Palma’s 1999 original and continuing with subsequent entries by John Woo and J.J. Abrams. Whether “Ghost Protocol” is the best in that expensive series of helicopter shots and exploding speedboats is up for debate, naturally, but it’s pretty doggone close. This is pure escapist cinema at its best, without morality or apology or guilt.

“Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” is now playing worldwide in IMAX theaters only, with wide release to follow beginning Dec. 21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>