The Mission: Impossible movie franchise has had different directors for each of its four installments, with so-so results. For the 1996 original it was Brian De Palma, who’d been directing thrillers since the 1970’s and had scored big with Carrie and The Untouchables. It took the TV series premise and raised the stakes to movie levels, but while it made money it wasn’t a critical success. For MI:2 in 2000 the producers recruited Hong Kong legend John Woo. He made a John Woo film, even down to the iconic Woo shot of the antagonists with guns aimed at each other’s head one arm’s length apart, and grafted some Mission: Impossible elements onto that story. It was financially successful, making a hundred million more worldwide than the original, but the blending of styles was jarring. (Tom Cruise, walking in on the bad guys in slow motion, surrounded by flying white doves?) For 2006’s MI:3, they went with television director and producer extraordinaire J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost), directing his first big-screen film. While it was an improvement on MI:2, Abrams tried to make the story more realistic, and sacrificed the fun of the gadgetry and twists that were the hallmarks of the original show. While it grossed almost $400 million worldwide, that was the worst showing of the series. The movie wasn’t helped by Cruise’s jumping on Oprah’s couch the year before. (Abrams did much better when he rebooted another TV franchise from the 1960’s, Star Trek.)
When the director for the 4th installment was announced, the choice was unusual. Brad Bird had never directed a live-action movie before. He’d made his name in animation, first with the classically animated Iron Giant, and then two excellent Pixar computer animation films, The Incredibles and Ratatoule. On the plus side, The Incredibles is the best superhero film made by someone who doesn’t have the last name of Nolan. But other than the voice track, an animation director doesn’t have to work with actors.
Bird, though, took the best elements of animation – tight story line, wit humor, and surprising action – and created the best Mission:Impossible ever, going all the way back to Peter Graves, Martin Landau, and the original IMF team.
The film begins with a jolt as an operative named Hanaway (Josh Holloway, Lost) bursts from a roof access door on an Eastern European train station, pursued by bad guys. He launches himself off the roof and shoots the bad guys as he falls, only to be saved by an IMF gadget, a man-sized air cushion. As he walks away, though, he’s killed by the assassin Sabine Moreau (Lea Seydoux) who steals the file he was protecting.
Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is sprung from a Moscow prison by two members of the IMF, Jane (Paula Patton) and Benji (Simon Pegg), who’d made it into the field after being an desk jockey analyst in MI:3. They’re given the task of breaking into the Kremlin security archives to find the identity of a terrorist named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist). But Hendricks has already wiped the files, and the mission goes horribly wrong when that section of the Kremlin is destroyed by a huge explosion.
Hunt is captured by the Russians, but he manages to escape from the hospital where he was being treated after the explosion. He’s picked up by a black SUV that’s carrying the famous “Secretary,” the one who would always disavow any knowledge of the IMF should they be captured or killed (an uncredited Tom Wilkinson). In the SUV with the secretary is Brandt (Jeremy Renner), whom the secretary introduces as an analyst. The secretary explains that the president has invoked the Ghost Protocol, wiping the IMF from the books. The only agents left in the field are Ethan, Jane and Benji. The secretary “suggests” that Ethan could assault him and Brandt, and then discover and stop whatever attack Hendricks is planning. But before Ethan can do that, the SUV is ambushed. Ethan and crew find themselves saddled with Brandt, who may know more than he’s letting on.
The movie races forward, moving through exotic locations (Moscow, Dubai, Mumbai). Several of the set pieces harken back to the original series, such as a meeting taking place on separate floors of the world’s tallest hotel. The team has only the technology they’ve scrounged from one IMF outpost, and not everything works properly, forcing them to improvise.
And that is a major difference with this movie. Unlike the other Mission: Impossible movies, this is not the Tom Cruise show with a couple of supporting players. The four are a team, and each is important. (It’s even reflected in the movie’s poster, which features all four actors, rather than the Cruise headshots used for the other three movies.) Paula Patton hadn’t appeared in an action film before, having mostly done dramas or dramedies like Precious and Jumping the Broom. However, she kicks butt as good as any of the boys. Jeremy Renner brings the dangerous edge that he displayed in The Hurt Locker and The Town, though this time there’s multiple layers to the character that are peeled back slowly. Simon Pegg’s wisecracking humor shines, though all of the principal characters have humor as part of their character. The support of the others allows Cruise to shine. It’s his best performance in years.
While Michael Nyqvist’s Hendricks spends most of the film in the background, his final confrontation with Cruise is a stunning piece of choreography. Interestingly, Nyqvist had played the journalist Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, with Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander. Now Nyqvist is in the #1 movie at the box office, while Rapace is in the #2 with the new Sherlock Holmes, both of them beating out the English-language version of Tattoo.
What Brad Bird et al have done is given us one of the most animated action movies ever. It’s breathed new life into this series, and into Cruise’s career after several misfires (Lions for Lambs, Knight and Day). It may have seemed like an impossible mission, but instead it’s a mission accomplished.