The latest installment in Tom Cruise’s revival of the old TV series is an odd bird that toys with the premise in an almost absurd way. The team in “Mission Impossible” has always had to improvise whenever something went wrong in their intricate plans to foil villainy. But usually that was just a brief interruption, quickly overcome. This time, everything goes awry over and over again—it’s like a comedy of frustration except for the fact that the mood is serious, the “Plane, Trains and Automobiles” of spy movies. Just think of that standby of contemporary pictures—the scene in which a cell-phone goes dead or is out of service. “Ghost Protocol” is like that a hundred times over, except that the gadgets that don’t work are far more sophisticated.
That doesn’t mean that the picture fails too. To the contrary, it’s better than the last installment, directed by J.J. Abrams, and even slightly superior to John Woo’s “MI:2.” It’s a big-boned, bombastic summer-style action movie served up as a Christmas treat for fans suffering winter withdrawal pangs for such fare.
It begins with the death of IMF agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway), killed by slinky assassin Sabine Moreau (Lea Seydoux) after he’s stolen a cache of secret Russian missile-launch codes from a courier. The codes are now on the way to a shadowy figure who intends to use them to start a nuclear war.
Cut to Ethan Hunt (Cruise), ensconced in a Russian prison. In a big set-piece he and a pal are sprung by a two-person team, pretty Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and comic-relief Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), just in time to get a new assignment: infiltrate the Kremlin’s archives to get info that will reveal who the villain is. Unfortunately, the mission goes awry when the Kremlin is the site of a bomb blast blamed on the Americans. Fortunately, in the course of it Ethan has bumped into the man actually responsible for the bombing—the mysterious mastermind who’s actually Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a crazed analyst who’s come to believe that the world can be purified to start all over again by Armageddon.
The diplomatic hullabaloo over the bombing, however, has compelled the president to close down the IMF operation—at least officially. However, before he’s killed by Russian cops, the Defense Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) gives Hunt the option of going after Hendricks without sanction, his team necessarily consisting of Jane, Benji and the Secretary’s analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who turns out—in one of the movie’s big “personal” reveals—to have had contact with Ethan in his past as an operative himself.
The remainder of “Ghost Protocol”—the term used for the official “shuttering” of IMF—consists of a globe-trotting chase that takes our intrepid heroes from Russia to Dubai and then to India, all the while pursued (in a thread that’s supposed to pay off at the end but falls flat) by Russki agent Sidorov (Vladimir Mashkov). The best stuff, from the action-adventure perspective, occurs in the Mideast, where Ethan has to try scaling the world’s tallest building, Spider-Man style, using only a pair of malfunctioning adhesive gloves, the team has to mount a double-mislead of the crooks by dealing with buyer and seller in different rooms, Carter has a terrific cat-fight with Sabine, and Hunt has to chase Hendricks almost blind through a dust storm. (There’s also a nifty bit in the Moscow sequence, involving an elaborate projection device that serves to cloak a hallway.)
By contrast the Mumbai sequence is less engaging, though it’s here that Renner finally gets his big moment in a sequence involving his suspended over a gigantic turbine. (Of course, Benji’s computer control of the situation fails, as do the computers at important points throughout the movie.) But Ethan’s final mano-a-mano against Hendricks in a parking garage overstays its welcome. Still, it has to be admitted that all the action scenes, even in the latter stages, are mighty impressive technically, a tribute to the skilled handling of director Brad Bird (heretofore an animation specialist), cinematographer Robert Elswit, the effects team headed by Mike Meinardus and John Knoll, and editor Paul Hirsh. They’re especially eye-popping in the Imax format, though viewing them in the large-screen theatre will also subject you to the incredibly loud surround-sound system that makes the explosions ear-splitting and Michael Giacchino’s score overwhelming, though his frequent tips of the hat to Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme are welcome.
Interrupting the action scenes, moreover, are more intimate conversational ones, which bog things down badly. Symptomatic of them is the one in which Brandt finally reveals his past, especially the mission that brought him in contact with Hunt, to Jane and Benji. It’s a badly written sequence in which Bird’s control seems to flag, and Renner’s delivery represents some of the worst work of his career (and yes, I include his guest stint as a vampire on “Angel”). But the acting is overall certainly acceptable for this sort of flick. Cruise looks fit and keeps his grin pretty much in check, though his Hunt is certainly as cocky as ever. Renner is better than the material he’s given (as is Nyqvist), and Pegg frankly gets irritating fast, but Patton is certainly a watchable addition to the crew, and Seydoux makes a sultry femme fatale who meets an appropriately spectacular end.
Like all movies of this type—and particularly those in this amiably synthetic franchise—“Ghost Protocol” has a mechanical quality that’s accentuated in this case in that it seems to wind down in the latter stages. But it’s mostly an efficiently manufactured, well-oiled machine that works well enough when it sticks to the action and avoids too much dialogue.