The fantastic gizmos keep malfunctioning in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” and similarly, this elaborately conceived fourth entry in the Tom Cruise action franchise delivers a tremendous early surge of excitement before running into engine trouble. Pixar wizard Brad Bird’s live-action debut serves up sights and setpieces of often jaw-dropping ingenuity and visual flair, but it’s a movie of dazzling individual parts that don’t come together to fully satisfying effect in the final stretch. Nonetheless, a robust marketing push, Imax showings and an ample if intermittent sense of creative resurgence should spell strong, sustained B.O. for Paramount’s holiday tentpole.
For observers at the time, the relative disappointment of 2006’s “Mission: Impossible III” (which grossed a series-low $398 million worldwide) suggested not merely franchise fatigue but a degree of mass-audience disenchantment with Cruise in the wake of his widely mocked PR woes. While the actor hasn’t toplined a major hit since then, enough time has passed to suggest a general willingness to re-embrace the star-producer and this durable property. It surely won’t hurt that “Ghost Protocol,” though unable to sustain its virtuosity over an unusually long 132 minutes, still manages enough sheer fun to qualify as the series’ strongest entry since Brian De Palma’s stylish 1996 original.
In that respect, it was wise of Cruise and his fellow producers (including J.J. Abrams, who directed the third pic) to place Bird at the helm. Counterintuitive though the choice of an Oscar-winning animator might have seemed, there was every reason to assume, given the helmer’s string of creative triumphs with “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” that his storytelling verve and formidable action smarts would translate more than readily to a live-action canvas.
And for an impressive stretch, they do, as Bird and his ace crew vigorously apply themselves to realizing a globe-trotting scenario (by co-producers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, vets of Abrams’ spy series “Alias”) that provides, for the first time in the series, a sense of narrative continuity with the prior pic. While it’s not immediately clear from the outset how Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) wound up in a Moscow prison, there are enough mentions of Julia, whom Ethan married in “Mission: Impossible III,” to orient the viewer and provide the intriguing possibility that this adventure might not be entirely self-contained.
Mere hours after an IMF team busts him out of jail, Ethan infiltrates the Kremlin in hopes of capturing Russian nuclear extremist Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), yet only winds up unwittingly helping the fanatic escape. Clever sequence makes use of eye-popping gadgetry (one nifty device essentially functions as a massive invisibility cloak) and culminates in a stunning single take of the Kremlin blowing up, a shot made perhaps unintentionally pointed in light of Russia’s election woes, and one of several instances in which the widescreen aspect ratio opens up to accommodate the full Imax screen in all its giant glory.
In warming up the ashes of the Cold War, the script delights not only in placing its characters in the most adverse possible circumstances, but in continually depriving them of their usual resources: With the U.S. and Russia on the brink of crisis and the American government disavowing all knowledge of IMF (initiating “Ghost Protocol”), the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of Ethan and his ill-equipped, down-but-not-out fellow agents: mouthy tech whiz Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), whose inexperience provides an excess of comic relief; Jane Carter (Paula Patton), a tough-and-tender type bent on avenging a fellow agent’s death; and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst reluctantly shoved into the field.
Pic reaches a literally dizzying peak at the midpoint, as the team commandeers a number of hotel rooms in Dubai so as to intercept the nuclear-launch codes being traded to Hendricks by a pouty French assassin (Lea Seydoux), whose faceoff with Jane marks the film’s most ferocious hand-to-hand bout. Before that point, viewers are treated to the sight of Ethan scaling the side of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, with nothing more than a pair of (unreliable) adhesive gloves. The timing of the cutting here is so sharp, the effect of Robert Elswit’s camera placement so vertiginous, that it genuinely takes the breath away; the marvelously light-fingered scene that follows, in which Ethan & Co. must deceive two sets of crooks, is nearly as tense.
After a chase on foot, remarkably, in a simulated Dubai sandstorm, the usual agent-bonding downtime sets in, occasioning a precipitous dip in momentum from which the film never quite recovers. Despite a logistically staggering sequence in a multitiered parking structure, featuring the altogether heartbreaking destruction of several perfectly good Beemers, the Mumbai-set endgame disappoints with its lower-stakes action and a pileup of wan espionage-thriller tropes. Trenchant geopolitics aren’t called for here, but for a movie that invokes the not-so-crazy threats of renewed Iron Curtain conflict and nuclear apocalypse, “Ghost Protocol” winds up seeming as flip as it is undeniably cool.
Just under 50 and in excellent physical form, Cruise delivers a typically smooth, professional turn that wisely requires little in the way of strenuous emoting. Pegg, Patton and Renner make appealing second-string company, though the occasional stretches of earnest, character-building dialogue feel especially leaden in comparison with the pic’s consummate wit and inventiveness in other departments.
Without aping De Palma’s and John Woo’s feverish operatics or Abrams’ more workmanlike approach, Bird favors a fluid, carefully composed style that understands that stillness and silences can be as effective as kinesis; Kremlin bombing aside, there’s a welcome avoidance of excess pyrotechnics here. Second unit director Dan Bradley, stunt coordinator Gregg Smrz and fight choreographer Robert Alonzo merit special mention for their top-class work, while returning composer Michael Giacchino (who collaborated with Abrams and Bird prior to his involvement with the franchise) once again supplies jazzy, propulsive riffs on Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme.