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Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Details: 2011, USA, Cert 12A, 133 mins

Direction: Brad Bird

Genre: Action

Summary: Ethan Hunt and his IMF colleagues are disavowed after being implicated in the bombing of the Kremlin

With: Anil Kapoor ,  Darren Shahlavi ,  Jeremy Renner ,  Josh Holloway ,  Lea Seydoux ,  Michael Nyqvist ,  Paula Patton ,  Simon Pegg ,  Tom Cruise ,  Tom Wilkinson and Ving Rhames

Our reviews

Philip french, peter bradshaw, catherine shoard.

The latest instalment of the action franchise is a return to form, with some classic Tom Cruise – and a hint of Alan Sugar, writes Catherine Shoard

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PopCult Reviews

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Movie Review – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

mission impossible ghost protocol kermode

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) Written by Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Christopher McQuarrie Directed by Brad Bird

Brad Bird was not a director likely to have been chosen to direct Mission: Impossible. Before Ghost Protocol, he had no live-action directing credits but had helmed The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. Bird proved to be up to the task and partially ended up shifting the tone of the MI series to a style that remains today. He also was part of a change in the types of villains the films presented. Previous MI films featured rogue IMF agents (MI & MI2) and an arms dealer (MI3). One of the biggest problems with a director like Bird is that he is intensely objectivist, following the writings of Ayn Rand. This can be seen most prominently in his box office flop Tomorrowland but is present in nearly all his work. It follows that his villain in Ghost Protocol is someone whose motives are never clear or coherent but is an outsider attempting to disrupt the status quo. This is also a typical villain archetype in Marvel films which has been a primary reason why those films have become increasingly less appealing to me. 

An IMF agent is killed in Budapest by the assassin Sabine Moreau (Lea Sedyoux). She is planning to sell nuclear launch codes to a terrorist named Cobalt. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team infiltrate the Kremlin to gather more intel on Cobalt but end up being blamed for an explosion the villain set up to frame them. Hunt learns Cobalt is Kurt Hendricks, a strategist who has decided that to change the world, a nuclear war needs to happen between the United States and Russia. The US President has activated the “ghost protocol,” which dissolves and disavows the IMF and its agents, leaving Ethan and his team in the cold. Analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) ends up with the team when the IMF secretary (Tom Wilkinson) is killed. Brandt turns out to be a valuable asset as the team must pull off an elaborate heist to get the codes from Moreau before Cobalt can.

Regarding action, Ghost Protocol set the standard for the following films. Returning to the first MI film after this makes the original feel downright quaint. The big set piece in this picture is the Burj Khalifa sequence. Hunt needs to get into a secured server room inside the tallest building in the world. They take the glass out of a window in the hotel room they are renting and, using “super science” gloves, Hunt “spider-mans” his way up. There is, of course, the requisite failure of the special gloves that adds tension to the scene. The server is accounted for, and then Hunt must tie a fire hose around his waist and repel his way back to the room before the heist really goes into action. It’s a flawless action set piece made all the more thrilling because Cruise (albeit with digitally erased harnesses) was on the outside of the largest building in the world. 

Ghost Protocol and as we will see with its descendants follows an ideological view that could be summed up as follows: “Yes, things are bad, but to change things would be worse.” This can be seen as “true” through a highly privileged Western lens, of which I am definitely in that group. Despite its individual hardships, my life has benefitted from my status as a straight cis white male (raised) Christian American. While I have not been living in the lap of luxury, I know I don’t have to worry about the systemic restrictions faced by people who don’t fall into my demographic. This is simply a fact of life about existing in this world (for now). 

Ghost Protocol sidesteps any messy commentary on the repercussions of the status quo on non-White, non-Western societies by making the villain Russian. He’s white, guys, so you can’t be mad. Cobalt is actually more of a strawman and a weak one at that. His entire vision is never laid out by the movie, just addressed in the broadest descriptors and hinged on “nuclear war is scary, right?” Yes, nuclear war is scary, but you’re not addressing the fact that other slow-moving catastrophes can also wipe out entire societies. Take a look at climate collapse as it ravages the global South. These movies never seem to worry about the tens of millions displaced yearly due to corporate terrorism. Changing the world balance that keeps people like Tom Cruise wealthy is bad, dontcha know? Thus, the invisible brown people must continue toiling in sweatshop factories and drinking poisoned water so that we can have the latest cool gadgets.

Cobalt is the weakest villain in the series to date. He and his henchman are entirely lacking in any sort of personality. Compare Cobalt to Owen Davian from MI3. Davian is a true horror of a villain, cold & hateful, able to do horrible things without flinching. The climactic fight between Hunt and Cobalt is thankfully low-key compared to other final battles. They duke it out in an automated parking garage that makes for a very visually interesting setting.

The biggest problem with Ghost Protocol is how sterile it feels compared to the previous three. Hell, even John Woo’s MI2, with its over-the-top melodrama, was more visually interesting than many of these pictures. It doesn’t help that the characters, from Ethan’s team to the villains, are one-dimensional, flat, and uninteresting. This signals a problem Hollywood has with making JJ Abrams your executive producer. Abrams has this penchant for coming onto an established IP, draining all the personality from it, and replacing it with a contemporary quippy flatness. Take a look at his Star Trek films which weren’t the worst things ever made but were ultimately dull, the worst thing an escapist movie could be. Jeremy Renner shows he is an actor at the center of this shift in cinema, playing Brandt the same as he would Hawkeye, just quips and not much else.

Brad Bird has been outspoken about his disdain for how animation is still viewed as a children’s medium in the West. I don’t think he helps his case in that his first live-action outing feels about as deep as a Saturday Morning action cartoon. Other than the Burj Khalifa sequence, Ghost Protocol doesn’t have much going for it. The villain has less than ten lines of dialogue in the film, so we never really understand who he is. This is also the film where the action set piece creep is setting it; we’re getting longer and longer action sequences that take up massive chunks of the movie, so the overall runtime is increased to fit in what can pass as a story in Hollywood. The worst thing about modern blockbuster cinema is how boring it all looks, and this falls into that category. The worst of the “centrist” perspective on foreign policy combined with tepid spectacle results in a highly forgettable picture.

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Film review – Mission: Impossible Fallout

mission impossible ghost protocol kermode

The persistence of the big-screen Mission: Impossible franchise is a testament to Tom Cruise’s habit of never giving up.  Back in the 1990s, hyperactive, star-powered reduxes for vintage TV franchises weren’t in short supply – and Mission: Impossible, one of Brian DePalma’s most impersonal films, wasn’t even the biggest box office and critical hit of the pack.  That was The Fugitive.  Harrison Ford isn’t jogging through the sixth episode of that saga – he even sat out the throwaway sequel – and similarly your multiplex this summer isn’t screening a Saint movie starring Val Kilmer or a Maverick with Mel Gibson.  Henry Cavill is hulk-shouldering his way through this because no greenlight flickers for another Man From UNCLE and Steve Carrell has more pressing business than showing up in Get Smarter.

It seemed that the M:I films had run their course after three entries, and Cruise’s stature (ahem) in the industry took a hit thanks to couch-jumping, Xenu and underperformers like Knight and Day, Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow.  But, ditching the numerals for sub-titles, Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol was a soft relaunch for the franchise and Mission Impossible Rogue Nation a solid follow-up – bringing back some of the intricate plotting of the TV show (the early Mission: Impossible films were sadly short of impossible missions), finally tumbling to the fact that the combo of Lalo Schifrin music and mosaic editing works as well now as it did when Peter Graves was choosing to accept, and foregrounding the still-athletic, determined-to-keep-in-the-game star’s fondness for death-defying practical stuntwork.  Cruise is actually still in a shaky career state – his last stab at actual acting in American Made didn’t click, his decent-enough Jack Reacher films haven’t formed a lasting franchise, and his equally stunt-heavy Mummy was a disaster – but the M:I films are in rude health.  And Fallout isn’t going to change that.

A hook at the end of Ghost Protocol introduced the Syndicate – who were often mentioned in the TV show – as the shadowy villains of Rogue Nation.  Fallout is the first M:I to be a direct sequel to an earlier entry, bringing back villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), captured in the last film, and love interest/rival Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who is still disposed to stick her oar in.  It opens in Belfast (for no particular reason) with Ethan Hunt (Cruise) getting a package which contains a nostalgic reel-to-reel tape recorder hidden in a book (though it has to be activated by a pinprick thumb-reader) and landed with a high-stakes mission involving three missing plutonium cores suitable for powering nuclear weapons.  Austin Powers made a joke about rehashing the plot of Thunderball in every spy movie, but Fallout – the most Bondian M:I to date – unashamedly trots it out again, though writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (the first to handle more than one M:I movie) has less interest in the story engine than in the many, many impressive action, fight, chase, stunt and peril scenes.

A dangling plot strand from Mission Impossible III about Hunt’s gone-to-ground wife (Michelle Monaghan) keeps popping up in dream sequences that attempt to give Ethan, the thinnest avatar of Cruisiness ever to sustain a series, an inner life.  Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg are still on board, and are starting – after all this time – to act more like the ensemble of the classic IMF, though Hunt is still an exponent of just winging it as opposed to careful long-range planning.  It’s notable that this series gets tired of its toys quickly – Ferguson and Harris were well-liked in Rogue Nation, and so get to return, but Blofeld-cum-Lecter Lane and shady operative Ilsa Faust are rather one-note here … making room for moustached Henry Cavill as CIA ally-cum-antagonist-cum-sparring partner August Walker, and (in a splendid, too-brief turn) Vanessa Kirby as an ambiguous international fixer called ‘the White Widow’ who gets to do scary flirting the way Ferguson did last time round.

What’s actually going on involves a Syndicate offshoot called the Apostles, rivalry between IMF ‘Secretary’ (Alec Baldwin) and off-the-shelf CIA boss Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett, reprising her Green Lantern turn), and a terrorist plan to seriously inconvenience one-third of the world’s population.  But the focus is on scene-by-scene entertainment … mixing old school M:I scams on befuddled bad guys (with that great bit of the scenery being taken down and the masks coming off as the perplexed boob  realises they’ve been taken) with sustained set-piece spectacle in Paris, London and Kashmir involving boat chases, parkour and hanging off helicopters.  The reason Cavill – let’s face it, Superman – is on board is that Cruise needs to have someone who looks as if he could conceivably be a threat to the star.  The plot finds reasons for the allies to fall out (hah!) and either compete (freefall sky-diving into an electrical storm over Paris, a chase over London rooftops) or combat (several brutal punch-ups, one head to head and one with a kung fu bad guy in the mix).  To take the edge off feats of inhuman endurance, Cruise’s Hunt makes it look like hard work – he’s always collapsing out of breath after his triumphs – but in contrast with the never-remotely-plausible dangling-from-a-burning-building stuff Dwayne Johnson does in the week’s other big action release (Skyscraper) the big scenes here take place in broad daylight with nary a greenscreen in evidence and Cruise’s IMAX-filling face in sharp detail on the head of the meat puppet taking a spill off a motorbike or clinging to a Kashmiri cliff with his fingertips.  Movie magic is doubtless involved, but it’s invisible.

So, the franchise is still in the game – as long as Cruise is willing to waive the reckless endangerment clause in his contract, it seems unlikely that the IMF will be disavowed any time soon.  And Lorne Balfe’s arrangement of Schifrin is excellent – not just the classic Mission Impossible theme but the equally memorable ‘The Plot’ .

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