I gave up going to blockbusters after the worthless TWISTER, only breaking my embargo when there seemed something genuinely special on offer from the creative talents involved. And then lapsing a few other times.
Brad Bird’s involvement in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL was enough to draw me in — he’s shaken up the world of feature animation (THE INCREDIBLES, for instance, has no songs, one writer, is two hours long, features numerous deaths, and focuses on its hero’s mid-life crisis) and I was intrigued to see what his live-action debut would be like. How would he handle actors and props and settings and camera moves with their own real physical weight?
The yearning of the flesh to become pixel.
Confession — I have actually seen all the M:I films at the cinema. It’s that “creative talents” clause: Cruise has seriously sought out filmmakers with interesting sensibilities. Weirdly, J.J. Abrams, the least celebrated director, crafted maybe the most satisfying film, maybe because he had the best script. Besides, I liked the way he was able to shoot action scenes where shots served more than a single purpose, even as he cut fast. DePalma’s opening installment seemed tailor-made to offer him some typical set-pieces, such as the hi-tech version of his trademark split-screen sequence. I’ve finally decided I can’t stand John Woo, and anyhow grafting the plot of NOTORIOUS onto an action drama was a dumb move — it makes the fights and chases even more redundant than usual. The writers tried to make it a Woo vehicle by inserting a dove. Big deal. Abrams carries less baggage that those guys, and he had an inventively absurd script to handle (that improvised defibrillator was outrageous).
Bird casts better than any of his predecessors since DePalma: it’s impossible to beat the combo of Ving Rhames and Jean Reno, who have such distinctive comic-book looks, but Bird doesn’t miscast his bad guy as Woo and Abrams did (Dougray Scott is too stolid, Philip Seymour Hoffman is an excellent actor wasted as a cartoon snark) — I didn’t find Michael Nykvist quite as colourful as I’d have liked, but his role is actually less significant than you’d expect, with relatively little screen time. Somebody with more visible derangement or physical threat might have been nice, but it’s no big deal.
The star attraction here is Jeremy Renner, America’s best knobbly actor, who manages to be more intense and dynamic than Cruise and funnier than Simon Pegg. Paula Patton and Lea Seydoux provide requisite glamour, and there are some surprise cameos. But it’s what I enjoyed in M:I III, the enjoyable absurdity, that makes this one the best yet ~
1) Tom Cruise does a lightning sketch in biro on the palm of his hand and Renner positively IDs it, using only the information that it’s a “European male”. This is my new favourite thing ever.
2) Cruise survives AT LEAST four lethal vehicular smash-ups, each more of a sure-death proposition than the one before.
3) He climbs the tallest building in the world using special gloves. Which don’t work. He should’ve tried licking his palms like Steve Martin in THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS.
4) He coincidentally finds himself on the run with a man with a secret and tragic link to his past, who also coincidentally was the only survivor of auto smash number 2.
5) Cruise and Pegg sneak around the Kremlin using a portable screen that projects a view of the corridor they’re in, so the security guy can’t see them. This is a digital version of the tunnels Wile E. Coyote would paint on rock faces. I would like one — it would make my living room look bigger.
6) Cruise gains admittance to the Kremlin — basically Moscow’s Disneyland, I believe — by sticking on a false moustache to impersonate a general. Even though he has a machine that makes completely convincing and flexible rubber masks. In fact, these masks are never used in this film, almost as if the writers, Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, thought they were too silly to get away with. Which, in its touchingly naive way, is the most joyously absurd thing of all.
If you like action films at all, you should try this — gleefully O.T.T. mayhem, coherently and dynamically shot, with Michael Giacchino’s score once again channeling the spirit of sixties espionage flicks. But it’s also Bird’s least emotional film to date, which is odd, although I guess it fits the nature of spy films. The attempts at human drama mainly involve backstory and characters from previous entries in the series, so they don’t amount to much. The emotion you will get is the sweaty palms and pounding pulse of suspense, which is the chief reason most people are going to go, I expect.
This movie finally cracks the series’ biggest problem, which is that it’s simultaneously about a TEAM, and a star vehicle for one actor. The balance is finally right, even though, rather weirdly, we end up with more access to Renner’s emotions than Cruise’s, and Renner gets the Big Emotional Backstory scene. A coda tries to hand it back to Cruise, but that’s a little late in the day. Still, this plays along with one of Cruise’s underrated qualities as a star: you’re never quite sure what’s really going on with him.
This is Bird’s first film not ostensibly about a Beautiful Freak or Amazing Genius, though by its nature it’s still a celebration of The Exceptional, just in less overt, didactic form. Maybe that theme needed retired anyway. I’m not 100% sure what this latest film’s theme IS, just as I’m not sure what Ethan Hunt’s appropriation of W’s “Mission accomplished” is meant to tell us…