Famed Iron Giant director Brad Bird has crafted the best action film of the year, Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a fast-paced thriller featuring impressively staged stunts, self-aware but never self-parodying humour, excellent performances and a surprising emotional core.
Impossible Missions Force (IMF) agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is languishing in a Russian prison when a team of IMF agents bust him out to lead a crucial new mission: stop a maniac from stealing the materials necessary to precipitate a nuclear holocaust. The team's initial job goes awry and the IMF is blamed for the partial destruction of the Kremlin, leading the Secretary to initiate "Ghost Protocol," the disavowal of the entire IMF. With meagre resources and a small team of three additional agents, Ethan Hunt is on the run from the Russians while pursuing a madman with his finger on the nuclear trigger.
The film's setpieces are divided geographically: Budapest, Moscow, Dubai, Mumbai. Each sub-mission puts IMF agents through their paces; there's exciting derring-do with all the requisite gunfire, leaps, car chases and explosions one could ever ask for. All the action is staged with clarity, suspense and surprising verisimilitude. At the film's midpoint, Cruise's Ethan Hunt is forced to free-climb the glass-walled outside of the towering Burj Dubai hotel. The entire sequence is bone-chilling in its effectiveness, and my palms were covered in sweat before the scene was even halfway over. If viewed in IMAX, this scene alone is worth the price of admission.
The film's true strenghth, however, lies in its characters - not just Ethan Hunt, but his team. Each member - William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton) - has their own character arc, enabling the audience to invest in each of them. In the best action films, we're given reason to care about what happens to the protagonists; otherwise, all we have is a series of empty explosions without emotional resonance. Ghost Protocol gives us reason to care.
I appreciated Ghost Protocol all the more because this is not a cynical film. Characters muse out loud about the unrealistic situations they're thrust into, but there's not a hint of self-mockery; the fourth wall is peered through with some curiosity, but never shattered. Rather, the characters seem bemusedly delighted to inhabit their hyperkinetic world. And they look after each other, working as a team, forming genuine bonds of friendship under trying circumstances. The heroes here are well worth emulating: they're empathetic, intelligent, decisive but never rash. And while the film has its share of high-tech gadgets, in the end it is the qualities of the agents themselves that lead to their ultimate success; indeed, this is an important sub-theme of the film.
Unlike many modern films, Ghost Protocol features a real denoument, a chance for the audience to catch their breath after the climax, wrap up a couple of character subplots and summarize the film's themes. It's a welcome respite, one that promises more adventures with this group of agents. I certainly hope Bird, Cruise and their team will return for more missions, since this was the best M:I film by far. Light the fuse!