Silver Screen: Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol ****
Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Helm an unlikely fourth installment of an action franchise increasingly concerned with validating the youthfulness and masculinity of an aging box office idol who is hounded by rumors of mental instability, sexual ambiguity, and fringe-religion fundamentalism. Surround him with a group of actors who can make him look good without ever upstaging him, keep the action moving at breakneck speed, and please, dear god, try to do a better job than John Woo.
The task is hardly impossible, but it's no easy feat, especially in a year choked with sequels and franchise movies, to stand out and breathe new life into a series that seemed to take a graceful and inconspicuous bow into the shadows with its third installment. But director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), making his live-action debut, is more than up to the task, creating an adrenaline-spiked romp that's kinetic but not manic, intense but breezy. Bird's impressive actioneer is ambitious and unambitious in all the right places, sporting just enough of a plot to make a good excuse for stringing together a series of dazzling action setpieces that deftly blend computer-generated insanity with nifty live-action stunts. It is, somewhat improbably, one of the most purely fun movies of 2011.
The broadstrokes of the story are scarcely important. A scary foreign guy has figured out a way to purchase and launch a Russian nuclear weapon that he hopes will spark a global nuclear war that can help reset society and ultimately prolong humanity's existence. It's like an episode of Hoarders where the earth has way too many people stacked up in the corners, and someone has to come in and clean the place out.
To accomplish this, our rather generic madman launches an assault on the Kremlin and frames International Monetary Fund agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). With the agency disbanded and the authorities hunting for stray members, Hunt must recruit a trio of fellow castoffs and work independently to foil the plot and clear his and his employers' names. Along for the ride is mysterious and suspiciously adept office worker Brandt (Jeremy Renner), wisecracking computer-tech stereotype Benji (Simon Pegg), and sexy ladyspy Jane (Paula Patton).
The Mission Impossible franchise hasn't distinguished itself since the first installment back in 1996. Brian De Palma's stylish, somewhat broody popcorn flick was good fun but gave way to the awful John Woo sequel. A third film, directed by J.J. Abrams (who also produced the fourth movie), was entertaining but unremarkable, an improvement on part two but ultimately unmemorable.
Bird's riff on the series is far more appealing. His ability to choreograph chaotic chase scenes and capture frantic motion with fluid, graceful shots-- fully on display in The Incredibles and Ratatouille-- is perfectly suited to the wild frolics cooked up by screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec. Hunt makes a brutal escape through a prison riot, sails through the air just ahead of an exploding Kremlin, dangles from the world's tallest building, and races cars through a sandstorm. But Bird's darting camera adds thrills to smaller scenes, too, like a fun dance Renner and Cruise must do around signal poles as they attempt to board a moving train.
When it's not launching into knuckle-whitening stunts, Ghost Protocol is downright jaunty, which goes a long way toward distinguishing itself from the other, mostly dour installments. Bird's movie isn't just out to impress with sheer size and scope, it's fun. Certainly here the director gets plenty of assistance from ace supporting actors like the versatile Renner, who unfortunately never quite gets to go full-on badass lest he show up star Cruise, and Pegg, whose wonderful delivery and charisma helps transcend an otherwise stock character. Only Patton disappoints; she's a very pretty lady, but totally unable to credibly pull off the action sequences or make the stiff expository dialogue sound smooth like Renner and Pegg.
As for star Cruise, it's certainly his show. The first words that appear onscreen are “A Tom Cruise production,” and again, despite his having a team of superspies, he never ceases to be the center of attention. For years now Cruise has seemed like an alien with his too-white smile, impossible-to-read eyes, and what appears to be a will-driven anti-aging process. As such, the Ethan Hunt role suits him well. We're not really supposed to be able to identify with Hunt, we're supposed to be impressed by him, and Cruise can make that happen, even if he can't really connect with viewers anymore. The rest of the film around him is imbued with a little more warmth and humanity, so he gets a little of that by proxy, although he remains Bird's least lifelike protagonist so far.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.