Without consciously making a deliberate decision I dropped off the Mission: Impossible bandwagon after the disappointing second film, though the release of a fifth this week has persuaded me to get back on, rewind and watch Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the fourth action spectacular to feature Tom Cruise’s American super-agent Ethan Hunt (as well as established call signs such as as Lalo Schifrin’s magnificent theme and those self-destructing messages).
Ghost Protocol is the quintessential modern franchise blockbuster, a film that tries to provide most things for most tastes: as a viewer you’re required to do nothing more than switch off and enjoy watching the conventionally good-looking actors, the spectacular action, the easy comedy, the suspense and the resultant triumph for a western power. It carefully adheres to that rigid modern format: there’s an exciting prologue and the requisite three big set pieces that follow take place in far-flung locations, each one involving peril but also cautiously safe and bloodless (a conscious decision made to keep some distance between Mission: Impossible and Bourne, or latter-day Bond, but admittedly one that has been ever present in the series as far as I can remember). There’s also a strong whiff of contractual obligation throughout, whether it’s from the glitzy lifestyle-oriented product placement (BMW and Volkswagen cars, Apple’s gadgets, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, Persol sunglasses) or the overly-familiar shot of The Cruiser at the end as he looks straight down the camera (yes, I know he’s supposed to be looking at someone from afar, but he’s got to ensure that the giddier members of the audience are still coming back for more piercing stares when he’s in his 60s). A flimsy, time-worn plot strings the action sequences together (in this case characters are racing to either start or stop a nuclear war between the US and Russia) and we finish with a brief hint that there will be another tale plopping into our lives in a few years’ time, as if we couldn’t have guessed anyway.
Helping Hunt this time round are team members played by Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner. The former’s there to provide comic relief, and in doing so repeatedly makes you wonder what kind of halfwit organisation would place all of its eggs in The Simon Pegg Character’s basket when the stakes are this high. The second kicks ass and conveniently provides insurance against accusations that the whole shebang is one big sausagefest. However the reality is that this franchise is one big sausagefest, tellingly bringing Pegg and Renner’s characters back for no. 5 while dispensing with Patton’s; Rogue Nation‘s director Christopher McQuarrie stated that Patton was unavailable for the 2015 film because of scheduling issues, though given the fact she only worked on one movie in 2014, in which she had a minor role, and apparently didn’t work on any TV shows, one has to wonder if that really is the case (though perhaps ‘scheduling’ was used simply to keep private decisions private). Anyway, they could have re-cast if they actually gave a damn about the character, but let’s move on to Renner, who looks a little sheepish as he prepares to play ‘second fiddle’ in yet another blockbuster; perhaps we’re witnessing the face of a man who is coming to terms with being in some of the biggest movies of the era while knowing deep down that they’re actually limiting him.
Up against the team are baddies Michael Nyqvist and Léa Seydoux, though sadly the more interesting villain of the two is killed off around the hour mark; I either missed or tuned out of the scene explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing, but it’s definitely something to do with diamonds, or money, or nihilism, or world peace, or a general desire to be a complete fucker, or an audition for a six-year scholarship to Evil Medical School. I’ve lost count of the number of action films that narrow a worldwide threat down to the activities of one single individual, but this is definitely another one of them.
None of this really matters anyway, because the selling point of the film – the reason lots and lots of people went to see it and enjoyed it – is obviously the frenetic action above all else, and very impressive it is too. The first act takes place in Moscow, and although eyes may roll at the resurrection of the old east-vs-west scenario so beloved of writers in the 1980s, I have to admit that watching Cruise’s Hunt run away from an exploding Kremlin while wearing a Bruce Springsteen t-shirt elicited a few chuckles in my house (as did the gadgetry on display, some of which would have been deemed ‘too ridiculous’ by the makers of Die Another Day). After Moscow the characters reconvene in Dubai – a very Tom Cruise Action Movie destination – where the tallest building in the world serves as a backdrop for some quite breathtaking vertical thrills n’ spills and also as a big glass n’ metal muse to cinematographer Robert Elswit. Lastly the story shifts to Mumbai, where Hunt and co manage to avert tragedy at the very last second by pressing a red button next to a digital clock that’s counting-down, an image that I have not seen in the movies for at least three whole weeks.
Although it takes place in a weird futuristic garage with thousands of cars stacked on top of one another the fight at the end is every bit as disappointing as ‘two middle-aged men scrapping over a briefcase’ sounds, especially in light of what has preceded it, but I’ll be kind, shrug, and point out that I’ve certainly seen worse (both pre- and post-Jason Bourne’s screen debut). It’s also the only time that Cruise moves like a man approaching his 50s, but what’s interesting is that this extended finale, beginning with the infiltration of a swanky party, is oddly reminiscent of the very first team-oriented snafu in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (albeit without the surprise character deaths, a game-changer at the time). And that pretty much sums up franchises like this one for me; you watch and you watch and you watch but it’s the same film over and over again, with tweaks made so that it looks like the emperor’s wearing new clothes. The first cut is always the deepest, regardless of any influx of new faces and regardless of the crazier stunts, though I won’t deny that this is exhilarating and tense at times.
Directed by: Brad Bird.
Written by: Josh Applebaum, André Nemec. Based on Mission Impossible by Bruce Geller.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Michael Nyqvist, Léa Seydoux.
Cinematography: Robert Elswit.
Editing: Paul Hirsch.
Music: Michael Giacchino, Lalo Schifrin.
Running Time: 129 minutes.