Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Definite Thrill Ride -- Reflections on "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" (2011)

Crazy, man, crazy...

Does any actor have bigger balls than Tom Cruise? Is any actor crazier? My guess is no. In the best action set piece of the newest Mission: Impossible film, Ghost Protocol, Cruise does his own stunt work as he scales the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Hanging over a mile and half above the ground, Cruise – and his character – seems to be testing the limits of his courage and devotion to the job. It is an extraordinary moment, iconic even, in which reality disappears, the heartbeat accelerates, and the “oh shit” factor increases exponentially. Despite seeing Cruise doing press tours and promoting the film with his typical zeal, there’s a moment as he dangles from the glass tower that life and death might actually hang in the balance.

While I didn’t love Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, I can’t help but smile as I remember the thrill.

A lot of critics use the term “thrill-ride” to describe action films, and it seems to be the best way to describe this one. Ghost Protocol is a thrill-ride from start to finish, devoting its time to some expertly well-directed and choreographed action pieces. While the Burj Khalifa sequence is worth the price of admission in and of itself, it is by no means the only great one. The film opens with a cleverly staged prison break, features a riveting chase scene through a sand storm, and concludes with a shocking duel in a futuristic parking garage. This film definitely took a kitchen sink approach to the material and the result is inventive and fun.

Tom Cruise returns as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, full of charm and intensity. He and his team, comprised of the comic relief (Simon Pegg), the multi-talented hot chick (Paula Patton), and the mysterious analyst (Jeremy Renner), are hot on the heels of a Russian terrorist (Michael Nyqvist) looking to save mankind by destroying it with stolen nuclear weapon codes and satellites. Is it just me, or has it been a long time since we’ve seen a Russian villain in an action film? This one, of course, is operating independently of his nation, is a mad genius, and the film wisely stays away from letting us hang out with him in his secret lair as he concocts his evil plans. It’s good enough to know he’s a Bad Guy. This film is more about the crazy lengths secret agents will go to in order to save the world.

The only knock against the movie is the way it clumsily handles exposition. The film spends so much time setting up the action that the characters often feel pretty two-dimensional, so in order to give the characters some depth, most of the characterization has to be done through expository dialogue. Characters spend an inordinate amount of time in the movie’s second act discussing their pasts and laying their motivations on the table for everyone to see. The result is some plodding scenes that bog down the propulsive rhythm of the plot. This is no one’s fault – unnecessary exposition is a chronic issue plaguing many action films – and it’s a rare action film (i.e. The Bourne Identity) that is able to effectively balance character development and high-octane action.

Credit director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), in his first live-action film, for keeping things moving along. His experience with animation shows here, especially in the action sequences, which have a fluidity not hampered by excessive editing. The framing and sequence of his shots revs up the tension and suspense, even though the thin characters haven’t necessarily earned any excessive concern. I’m looking forward to what Bird can do with scripts of a higher caliber.

Nonetheless, if you are looking for a solid, exhilarating action film to enjoy with your family this holiday season, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is the film for you. This is a film that hits you like an adrenaline shot, as stunt sequence after stunt sequence do more to put you in the middle of the action than any action film I have seen in recent memory. Like Fast Five earlier this year, Ghost Protocol is a sequel that doesn’t require you having seen the previous movies, amps up the cartoony elements of action and violence, and gives you a hell of an enjoyable ride.

I saw this film in IMAX with the 6-minute trailer for the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. Two thoughts: 1) IMAX makes everything better. Watching the Burj Khalifa sequence on a 72-foot high, 52-foot wide screen was one of the most immersive experiences I've ever had when watching a film. 2) The Dark Knight Rises is going to be one of the best films of 2012 if those first six minutes are any indication. Christopher Nolan has some incredible tricks up his sleeve, and watching an airplane being turned vertical during mid-flight was something I'll never forget.

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