Tom Cruise really buffed up for this one and he still looks like he’s in his mid fucking thirties too.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is one of those sequels that no one really wanted. Somehow, though, they managed to conjure various Hollywood magicks and produce a pretty great cast and Brad Bird to direct. After doing some of Pixar’s best movies (Incredibles anyone?) Bird is/was ready, I guess, to go live-action. And I do mean action. Ghost Protocol is one of those rare contemporary action films that feels at once modern and nostalgic (if only because the action so fucking well shot) which is only fitting for a series that is now 15 years old. Not only that but it’s easily the best action film of 2011. Not a lot of major competition this year, except Fast Five and a bevy of shitty superhero movies (with the exception of Captain America where, let’s face it, the action isn’t the strong suit). The trailer that released earlier in the year set the stage for what could be and is and I’m extra happy as a lover of action movies because hey, for once the fucking thing lived up to the marketing.

Ghost Protocol wastes no time setting up the overall plot. A genius-level psycho believes the world can only be peaceful if nuclear devastation is visited on everyone equally. It’s exactly the kind of nonsense that is required for an expansive cartoon like this to work, though, because if you go fishing into real-world geopolitics with a property like Mission Impossible, the credulity of your audience is sure to be tested.So yes, it’s a bit silly but not any more silly than the IMF itself. The psycho’s code name is Cobalt for fuck’s sake. Bird and his writers know the tropes and expectations for a movie like this and they also know exactly how to manipulate them to make it feel fun, fresh, and like we’re in on the couple of nice winks they get in. Without being an exposition-heavy or intellectualized affair, Ghost Protocol manages to not do what a great many action movies do: insult the audience’s intelligence.

In this movie, it isn’t the threat that matters so much as convincing us that there are real stakes. Part of the reason Ghost Protocol is so very exceptional as an action film is that most of the action sequences are nail-biters. I don’t remember the last time I felt as tense during a fucking big budget Hollywood action movie as I did during a few scenes here, especially the ingenious double-meeting bit at the Dubai hotel. Bird not only shoots his action cleanly and with a refreshing degree of inventiveness, he somehow found a way to make the proceedings as tense as if this were not a spy cartoon. That is an achievement.

The new team.

While Agent Carter (Paula Patton) fails to keep vital intel out of Cobalt’s (Michael Nyqvist) hands, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is stuck in a Serbian prison bouncing rocks off the wall as The Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) leaves him to stew for unknown reasons. When Carter and a newly field-certified Benji (Simon Delightful Chap Pegg) rescue him, his involvement in the overall campaign to get rid of Cobalt starts to become clear. Why Hunt was in that prison and all the circumstances surrounding the absence of his wife, played previously in Mission Impossible 3 by Michelle Monaghan, is the source of much of the intrigue. For whatever reason, the writing team (Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec) opted to keep this entry free of any big betrayals or twists and turns except for that the whole truth about what Hunt does and doesn’t know, is and isn’t involved in, is saved til the end. It’s a nice payoff to the bits and pieces that are revealed throughout and the focus never remains on this long, rather the movie allows it to be a source for characterization. It was a good move and elevates the interactions among the characters that extra notch. It’s especially brilliant when you think about how unusual it is for a spy movie to have character-based intrigue at its center. Usually it’s some plot-necessitated betrayal.

Because of that human-centric focus, something I’m sure attracted Bird to the script, the movie maintains a kind of affable warmth. Mostly this is accomplished through small moments and dialogue that usually skews toward humor. It works, though, and nicely balances the times where the movie does go a bit deeper and darker. The way this balance works out reminded me a lot of Fast Five which had similar success with mixing character stuff with the chases, gunfights, and other fun. All of the cast are up to the job here, with Cruise confidently leading the pack in the type of performance that reminds people why he’s a great actor and not just a nutjob with connections as some would have it.

Like other movies of its kind, Ghost Protocol sometimes adopts an ensemble attitude but remains unmistakably driven by Cruise.

The team is rounded out by analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner) who fits in perfectly here as a sort of alternate-Ethan, a version of his younger self that went another way. I don’t want to spoil anything but the “twist” at the end of the movie is only saved from being something of a waste by the payoff it has for this character. Often Brandt also gets to balance the humor which would otherwise be a product of Benji’s goofy enthusiasm. He is incredulous about all the tech and protocols and plans and gets to be an outlet for audience skepticism, one of the biggest ways that Bird and his writers let us in on the fun that this is supposed to be.

Paula Patton, an actress I am unfamiliar with, seemed like the weak link early on. This isn’t helped by the one false move Bird makes: the opening. The film opens on the op that failed, a scene that features Josh Holloway (who looks older than Cruise, ye Xenu) as a confident agent and love interest for Carter. The problem comes from that this scene isn’t showed to completion before we jump to Cruise and his prison escape. It’s only when Carter catches him up on what’s going on that we see all that transpired with Hanaway (yeah, that’s Josh Holloway‘s character name). It’s a misstep because it leads to clunky voice-over and the repetition of a few minutes of stuff we’ve already seen. A better move would have been to cold open with this op-gone-wrong and then go to Ethan. The audience would get that something went wrong and the exposition could take 2 seconds with Carter explaining it. They didn’t go that way, unfortunately, but it’s a relatively minor problem. My misgivings about Patton from these early scenes was no problem at all by the end, though. She proves herself to be as capable as anyone in the cast and, above all else, not the “token female” that anyone would be perfectly justified expecting given the type of movie we’re talking about. The character (and performance) is helped by the foil the movie gives her: a deceptively cute assassin named Moreaux (Lea Seydoux who, hooray, was straight-forwardly cute as Gabrielle in Midnight in Paris).

Fun to see Holloway but he has serious bad-guy face. He’s the Sean Bean to Cruise’s Pierce Brosnan. Except not at all.

One of the things I liked about this movie that I’m not sure will translate well for others is in its use of technology. As a technology-enthusiast, I can recognize that many of the gadgets (the contact lenses for example) in this film are based on projects that are already underway, simply taken a bit beyond their scope in order to facilitate the needs of the film. Augmented reality, touch-based information transference, and intricate camera technology all balance with the sillier stuff to put a big, gadget-loving smile on my beautiful face. To some, this will all be silly or cool but definitely unrealistic to the extreme. What I enjoy about movies like Ghost Protocol is that yes, it’s unrealistic, but not as unrealistic as you’d think.

Back to the action for a bit now.

It isn’t enough to simply say that the action in Ghost Protocol is awesome or well shot. It is those things but I can be more specific so you know what I mean. One of the important elements of any good action scene is the set-piece. Often, in criticism, a set-piece is also a term for a sequence that is meant as one of the calling cards for the whole film. The key word there, though, is “set”. See, any action sequence or set-piece relies on the environment within which it takes place. This is part of the reason why CG movies often have problems with creating urgency or stakes in their action bits: it’s like having actors standing in front of a painting, the environment and obstacles therein simply aren’t tangible. This is not an inherent effect of using CG, though, simply a lack of imagination on the part of the people who employ it too often as a convenience (Robert Rodriguez, for example). In Ghost Protocol, as with many classic action movies, never let’s anything feel intangible. Every set-piece contains moving parts and obstacles, sometimes human and sometimes not, as well as emphasizing the visceral nature of hand-to-hand combat, explosions, gunshots, etc. Part of this, as evidenced best by the prison sequence, is in keeping shit happening in the frame. A lot of the action in this sequence is done with short tracking shots (no cuts) which allow the audience to completely follow the action. Too many action movies use fast cuts to gloss less-than-perfect blocking (the actor’s movements in frame) and choreography. The reason why this is rarely called out or even noticed by your average film-goer is that our brains accept the glossing, filling in the missing images with a sort of blanket understanding that fight has happened. Sometimes fast cuts and active camerawork are used effectively to make the action more visceral, as in the Bourne films, but I think it’s clear that only certain people have the chops to make that work. Too often, action sequences are over-edited messes that filmmakers kind of get away with but there’s a reason why people, even those no too well versed in this level of thinking about movies, agree about the great action sequences. They may not be able to articulate why the action in Transformers 3 is better than it is in Transformers 2 but it’s because 3D cameras forced Michael Bay to use less cuts, thereby creating better motion and image fidelity on-screen.

Anyway, mini-essay over. By now you probably at least get that I have some reason for thinking Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol‘s action is great. Good enough!

The Dubai Tower stuff is fucking fantastic. The only thing that could have improved it would be IMAX but there isn’t one in Saskatoon so boo.

All in all, Ghost Protocol is one of those sequels no one really wanted. But is is also a necessary film, it turns out, because it is one more step back from the brink of total fucking drek that too often masquerade (successfully if audience numbers and box office take are any indication) as legitimate movies, let alone action movies. Bird proves not only that he’s as great a director live as he is in animation, but also that a combination of new school and old school thinking about how to shoot action is the way to go. Patton proves she deserves a follow-up to this, what is probably going to be a big break for her. Everybody else is great too with the exceptional notice going to Cruise who proves that he has this in him, doubt of which is probably key in why this was one of those sequels no one really wanted.

But we should all be glad, even this once, that Hollywood could really give a flying flaming autowreck what we want.

I want more of this car. We can agree on this, right Hollywood?