“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.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • 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>