The Mission: Impossible series, like the equally non-prolific Alien series (which had four films over the course of 18 years, versus M:i's four films over 15), has had the unique ability and opportunity to reinvent itself with each of its installments. Like (most of) the James Bond films, each M:i movie has been a stand-alone adventure told by a distinctly different director. By now, we know that Tom Cruise excels as IMF team leader Ethan Hunt; it's an action hero role he nails no matter who's calling the shots, and one that he can play until he's 100 years old, as far as I'm concerned. So it's not so much Cruise that's on trial with the fourth film but the latest M:i director: Brad Bird, the man behind such beloved (and action-packed) animated films as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles.
So how does Bird stack up to his predecessors, which include Brian De Palma (1996's Mission: Impossible), John Woo (2000's Mission: Impossible II) and J.J. Abrams (2006's Mission: Impossible III) -- and, more generally, how does this guy do with directing a live-action feature film? The answer to both questions is‚ pretty damn well, actually.
Ghost Protocol opens with IMF agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway) getting iced by hottie assassin Sabine Moreau (Lea Seydoux) and her walking off with whatever super-important files he was carrying. We then cut to Russia, where IMF agents Jane Carter (the impossibly gorgeous Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, providing somewhat more subdued comic relief this time around) break Ethan Hunt (Cruise) out of prison -- along with Hunt's new pal, Bogdan (Miraj Grbic), a man who will probably prove useful later. From there, their mission (which they choose to accept) is to stop Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist of Sweden's version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), a madman in possession of Russian missile launch codes who's looking to start a nuclear war (why? Because he's crazy!).
From there, you get a series of some of the most spectacular action scenes to ever be put into an M:i film (and in any action film this year), including an infiltration of the Kremlin (which ends up going ka-boom, a terrorist act that leads to the President initiating "Ghost Protocol" and disavowing the IMF team); scaling Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, with a pair of magnet gloves (yeah -- it's pretty awesome); a high-speed chase with zero visibility thanks to a raging sandstorm; and an obligatory catfight between Patton and Seydoux, which is a lot more cathartic than it has any right to be. This all leads to a climactic battle in a multi-level parking garage that's particularly gruesome and bone-crunching.
Brad Bird conducts all of this spectacle extremely well. The action sequences are astonishingly well-structured, filled with imaginative visual flourishes without being indulgent, which is something that ultimately sunk John Woo's beautiful-looking but ultimately empty second installment. It's also a very exciting movie, which is something that J.J. Abrams' efficient yet oddly lackluster third installment wasn't. Ghost Protocol also has the most streamlined and focused plot of all the M:i movies, and in that department it surpasses Brian De Palma's visually playful yet narratively confusing original film.
While Ghost Protocol surpasses all of its predecessors in those departments, where it stumbles a bit is in the non-action scenes. The film has an oddly cartoonish tone, and there's often a strange awkwardness in the dialogue exchanges and physical gestures -- it's as if Bird is still directing larger-than-life animated characters. The fact that many of these characters are able to perform feats that no human being could possibly do probably didn't help in Bird's transitioning from animation to live-action; while Bird is aces with the action, he still needs a bit more practice with the‚ well, humans.
But, really, somewhat exaggerated characterizations is a minor weakness in a movie where freaking Tom Cruise is climbing up the side of a giant glass building like he's Spider-Man and Jeremy Renner (as the secretive new team member, Brandt) is being suspended above a super-hot super-computer by way of a magnetized suit (a sort of high-tech update to Cruise's classic suspension scene in the original film). You should definitely accept this Mission -- and in IMAX, if you can. Whoa.