Ghost Protocol: The Best Mission Impossible Since That Last One You Forgot About

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Action Movies, Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
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Remember how after The Incredibles came out, the people making Fantastic Four had to scramble to rewrite their third act because Brad Bird had basically trumped everything they’d been doing?*

Well, it turns out by making Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, he’s basically screwed the next James Bond movie. Sorry, Skyfall, you’re gonna have to make Daniel Craig jump off of some pretty tall and unusual things now to compete.

It’s weird to praise this as the “best” Mission Impossible movie because that implies a level of quality control that’s not really existent in the franchise. Because there’s nothing about it that actually MAKES a franchise, despite the recognizable title and consistent lead actor.

Franchise isn’t the right word, then. Brand name. Anyway, even the presence of Tom Cruise isn’t required for it to be a Mission Impossible movie. If fortunes had turned a different way, Ving Rhames might be the headliner on this thing. 

In an interview somewhere, Cruise mentioned that the MI franchise was a director’s spotlight, and to an extent, that’s true, in a way the James Bond movies are not. Whereas your average 007 director fit his style to the franchise, each MI director essentially made whatever kind of action movie they wanted to do and slapped the MI brand on top of it – the paranoid voyeurism of Brian DePalma, the surface-level slo-mo violence of John Woo, the “Hey let’s just do an episode of ‘Alias’ with Tom Cruise in the Sidney Bristow role” effort of J.J. Abrams, and now finally, Brad Bird in his live-action directing debut.

Bird’s stamp, apparently, is “Let’s show these motherfuckers how you make an action movie.” That is going to be a hard one for the next director to top (especially since, the way these Mission Impossible movies get made, it’ll be 2017 and Tom Cruise will be around 55 years old).

Which, yes, is why Jeremy Renner plays a prominent role in this one – he can easily take over the lead role after Cruise becomes too old and/or expensive. After all, it’s not like people give a shit about Ethan Hunt as a character – he’s NOT a character. He’s not James Bond, wherein a specific set of characteristics are applied to a new actor, who interprets them in his own way for however many movies. Ethan Hunt’s just the name you slap on Tom Cruise so he can star in a big-budget action flick.

Ah, I’ve devolved into bitching about movie-making. Let me tell you why Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocolmay be the

Simon Pegg, shown here happily not climbing giant skyscrapers

best action movie not involving a superhero that I’ve seen in YEARS, by bitching some more, this time about Pirates of the Caribbean.

The last PotC movie was mostly praised for being a “back to basics” PotC movie, after the last two went ahead and concocted some goofy, CGI-intensive and utterly uninvolving mythology involving the least charismatic actors in the series. To right the ship (heh), On Stranger Tides jettisoned all the goofy mythology, threw Ian McShane in there as Blackbeard just to Ian McShane all over the place, and so it felt…better.

Not GOOD. Better.

See, the way they made an action movie was to tell you a ridiculous Macguffin plot, then throw an action sequence in, then continue the “let’s find the stupid thing that makes the plot advance” story, then throw in an EVEN MORE RIDICULOUS action sequence in, etc.

Which is when I realized the problem with action movies – PG13 action movies in particular – is they’re like video games played in reverse.

When you play a video game, you make your way through a level, dealing with increasingly difficult and/or ludicrous problems, and then once you’re done, you sit through a cut-scene that moves the story along to the next battle. On Stranger Tides is this structure in reverse: You in the audience are interested (if barely) in the macguffin plot, then you sit back as the action sequence runs its course, and then once Jack Sparrow lands safely on the ground, the plot can now continue.

There’s a lack of investment in a lot of action flicks that I find unsettling. When you know the lead character is in no real harm, and nothing is at stake, you’re just waiting for the director to get his ya-yas out, so the movie can continue. It’s actually a lot like watching someone ELSE play a video game, now that I think of it. A video game they paid $200 million to make, and you spent $11 to watch them play.


Anyway, that’s what makes Ghost Protocol so much fun: Brad Bird seems to KNOW you paid $11 to watch him play a video game. So he’s decided to let you watch him play a game SO HARD THAT YOU WOULD NEVER, EVER WANT TO PLAY IT YOURSELF.

An Imagined Meeting between Brad Bird and Studio Execs:
“Yeah, it’s cool if Tom scales a building…but what if it’s the tallest building in the world?”
“Sure, Brad, why not?”
“Aaaand, let’s say his climbing equipment goes haywire.”
“Uh…okay – ”
“And yeah, let’s give him only 20 minutes to do it.”
“Well…sure, but won’t that stretch believab – ?”
“OH! Did I mention I want a sandstorm to hit him at some point? Also I have some ideas about that scene where you just wrote ‘Ethan fights to get a suitcase back’, and I’m pretty sure I can film it like the worst MegaMan level ever fantasized.”

It’s a movie that recognizes the only reason to watch it is for the exciting bits. So it amps up those bits to Herculean proportions, dials back any character-building stuff to a minimum (because really, do you care? no. No you don’t**), and makes sure every time Tom Cruise falls from a great height into a window or a car or whatever, it sounds like he might have maybe broken his jaw.

And he  does this so you in the audience think, “OOOH! Dang, I’m glad Tom Cruise is taking on all that head trauma. Looks like it hurts. DO IT AGAIN.”

So what I’m saying is, if you want to go see a movie over the last few weeks, and you thought, “Ehh, I’m not European enough for Tintin,” or “Y’know, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo seems AWFULLY rapey,” or “How can I plausibly sit through Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows when the BBC Sherlock series has just returned?” then HAVE I GOT THE MOVIE FOR YOU.

*It’s okay if you don’t recall that, I’m thinking it was just some Aint-it-Cool rumor-mongering, but still, The Incredibles did make Fantastic Four look like even more of a sack of crap than it might have seemed otherwise.

*Though if you DO care, the last five minutes of the film are kind of hilarious, in the way they refer back to the previous movies to tell die-hard fans – if that’s a thing that exists – “No, we watched those too, here’s how we resolved that whole ‘Ethan’s wife’ thing Abrams threw in, if that’s what you were hoping for.”

  1. Jason Gormally says:


    But seriously, every single point you make here (especially the whole ‘Tom-Cruise-breaking-his-body-into-broken-chunks sound effects’ part) is exactly what went through my head while I was watching it in the theater. I had to stop myself from laughing out loud at the ending with his wife, though. That was ridiculous, but at the same time, at least it shows Brad Bird gives a shit about the series.

  2. Erin says:

    I think I’m the only one who liked the end. Not because it inserted a happy ending or anything, but because the explanation worked as a missing MI story. Seriously, the description of how they did it, the completely illogical explanation for why he felt it was necessary… that all felt perfectly in-world.

    Overall, though, I preferred Abram’s take. Watching a MI movie with a plot that didn’t at least pretend to try and lose me was kind of disappointing. I mean, where’s the ridiculous and random plot twist? Why isn’t someone betraying them for no discernible reason? And why aren’t more people wearing those silly masks? I LOVE THOSE SILLY MASKS.

    I liked the dumb action, though, so the movie wasn’t a total loss.

  3. mbourgon says:

    I liked it more than the second, which just, honestly, sucked. To the point where I didn’t bother with the third. (only the REALLY GOOD REVIEWS AND METASCORES got me to see it). The BIGGEST problem I had with it was Simon Pegg’s character. Not the character, per se – I liked seeing a nerd. Everybody with their Super Spy I Look Serious Suits, and he’s standing there with an Action Comic #1 t-shirt & jeans.

    But, the tech…no. Just, no. I’m glad that every bit of tech you had failed miserably, but worked just enough. But that’s not how it would have to work. If you had something like the glove that didn’t work 101 times out of 100, you Wouldn’t Have It. It’s stuff like that wot gets agents killed – and it’s a lot easier to revamp and fix the tech, or not have it, than it costs to get another agent.

    Haha, it’s played for laughs, look at the dumb nerd and his stupid toys wot break. Aggravating.

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    @mbourgon: I absolutely see your point, but this is not a film series where that level of reality is taken into account (see Erin’s comments). This is a movie where Tom Cruise sustains MANY SERIOUS HEAD INJURIES and not only is he NOT brain-damaged…his face is not even injured. Not a single missing tooth from that creepy shark’s mouth he thinks is a smile. So, I’m okay dismissing what should be, when a movie is working with Chuck Jones cartoon physics.

    @Erin Don’t get me wrong – as someone who really liked MI3 (and also the first couple years of Alias), I was actually a bit charmed that this movie bothered to address it at all, since continuity between films has previously been “…and Ving Rhames is still alive, BTW.”

  5. Lindsay says:

    “Ghost Protocol: The Best Mission Impossible Since That Last One You Forgot About” Yes. This exactly.

    Because I know I saw 3, (and possibly 1 and 2 at some point) but I don’t remember a darn thing about it. I have this vague image of a red car pulling up to someplace (the Vatican? Fancy Hotel?) and someone crawling through sewers, but that could easily be a different action movie. I basically don’t remember it at all.

    I thought Ghost Protocol had an extremely charming blend of humor and OMG-WHAT-THE-SHIT-JUST-HAPPENED-ness, so it really worked for me.

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    “Not a single missing tooth from that creepy shark’s mouth he thinks is a smile. ”

    Sorry, I just remembered that was how William Gibson described his Bigend character from his most recent books.

    Aaaand now I’d like to see a Gibson-scripted MI movie. (Which, naturally, would get rewritten all to hell, but a guy can dream.)

  7. Mbourgon says:

    I dunno. I read Gibson’s screenplay of Neuromancer, and it succumbed to so many tropes it was downright scary. Half the fun of Gibson is the language and mood, which would easily be lost in translation.

  8. braak says:

    That could be kind of neat, though, if you made a MI movie that was like the early Gibson novels: just weird and moody and sprawling, and featuring a weaponized cyborg dolphin.

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