Fifteen years and four feature films into the "Mission: Impossible" series, there is nary a sign of lethargy showing through. Spaced out enough so that they've never felt like overkill, the films have also benefitted from a change in director with each new entry. As the behind-the-scenes talent has constantly shifted, so, too, has the creative and stylistic approach. 1996's "Mission: Impossible," directed by Brian De Palma, was crafted as a labyrinthine spy thriller. 2000's "Mission: Impossible 2
," from John Woo, favored bombastic action with Eastern influences and James Bond flair. 2006's "Mission: Impossible III
," which saw J.J. Abrams at the helm, went with a more realistic, gritty, down-and-dirty approach. For "Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol," our latestand quite possibly bestinstallment, Pixar filmmaker Brad Bird (2004's "The Incredibles
" and 2007's "Ratatouille
") tackles his very first live-action feature and, without so much as appearing to break a sweat, ably puts to shame most veteran directors who have made a living in the action genre (that includes you, Michael Bay). A sort of combo platter of all the previous styles put together, the picture is a fine example of efficient storytelling and economical character-centric moments that add to, but never get in the way of, its bread and butter: some of the more arm-clenchingly thrilling action set-pieces to grace the silver screen this year.
Busted out of a Moscow prison (where he was doing time for circumstances yet to be uncovered), Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is reunited with the Impossible Missions Force and presented with his newest assignment. Colleague Hanaway (Josh Holloway) was recently killed in duty by assassin Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux), who in turn is working for a maniacal extremist named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) who is in pursuit of Russian nuclear launch codes. If detonated, these bombs could annihilate most of the world's population. With the relationship between Russia and the U.S. splintering, IMF attempts to save face and abruptly disavows Hunt's missionan occurrence known as ghost protocol. If caught, Hunt, fellow agents Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) could be branded terrorists, but it's the lesser of two evils when the alternative could mean dying in a cataclysmic nuclear explosion.
"Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol" is adrenalized with inspiration from the start, a daring prison-riot-turned-escape craftily scored to Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," followed by a buoyant opening credits sequence that puts to good use composer Michael Giacchino's (2011's "Super 8
") seat-rattling orchestration of Lalo Schifrin's classic theme. Once the plot proper is introduced and the villain's motive established (old-fashioned world annihilation, because he's crazier than a craphouse rat), director Brad Bird and screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec barrel full speed ahead with a break-in at the Kremlin and a car's plummet into a river shot masterfully from within the vehicle. It's the next extended set-piece (or should they be called set-pieces?) that takes the cake, though, a trip to Dubai and the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, that finds Ethan Hunt holding on for dear life 130 storeys in the air. Thrilling, horrifying and vertigo-inducing in equal measure, this sequence segues smoothly into a quietly intense standoff with Hendricks' men, a brutal showdown between Carter and Moreau, and a high-speed outdoor chase through a sandstorm. Tensions are suspended for so long and at such a heightened rate that this section of the second act alone is worthy of applause.
At forty-nine, Tom Cruise (2010's "Knight and Day
") is aging gracefully, looks to be in great shape, and doesn't miss a beat when it comes to performing a handful of daredevil stunts that one can clearly see is really him doing them. There is very little flashing of his pearly whites here; as the story demands, he must be no-nonsense but accessible, which he is. As much of a beating as Hunt takes, however, falling from numerous places and getting into multiple car accidents that would kill a normal person, it is amazing how quickly he heals from one scene to the next. Suspension of disbelief is a beautiful thing. As Brandt, an analyst whose field work stopped following an event from his past he now keeps closely guarded, Jeremy Renner (2010's "The Town
") matches up with Cruise beat for beatnot easy when you're acting next to one of the biggest movie stars in the world. The divine Paula Patton (2011's "Jumping the Broom
") is another happy addition to the series as Agent Carter, making certain that her character may fix up nicely in a dressas when she bewitches a wealthy Indian businessman (Anil Kapoor) to divert attentionbut is no damsel in distress. Simon Pegg (2011's "Paul
") is ideal as Benji, taking the comic relief role and never overdoing it. By capturing the realism within each moment, his occasional one-liner asides pay off rather than turn him into an annoying stooge. Finally, Léa Seydoux (2011's "Midnight in Paris
") is an intoxicating femme fatale
as the deadly Moreau, saying more with her willowy, slightly squinted eyes than most actors manage with a full-page monologue.
"Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol" will not come to be known for its documentary-style plausibility, and it is patently ridiculous when one thinks about how long these characters must stay awake without taking so much as a power nap. It's unlikely that the leads are truly in any fatalistic danger because, well, people don't see these movies to watch Tom Cruise get defeated, but the possibility of such is slyly teased with enough by director Brad Bird to keep tensions permeating. The segment in Dubai is probably the film's highlight, but what arrives in time for the climax surprises by being nearly as titillating. A fight in a post-modern electronic parking garage displays particularly well-crafted showmanship while also giving viewers a setting they've never seen before in quite this way. The ending, too, includes a surprise that isn't some cheap twist, but adds a tinge of bittersweet emotion to an otherwise thrilling year-end experience. "Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol" is not Oscar bait (though it should be up for several technical categories), but as far as properly choreographed, cohesively edited slam-bang action goes, popcorn-munching audiences probably won't be able to do much better than this. A fifth "Mission: Impossible" sounds tempting already.