Mission: Rewatchable - 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol'
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to revisit all previous Mission: Impossible movies in advance of July 12's Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One. Next up in the queue: 2011's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. This retrospective will self-destruct in 3... 2... 1...
Let the era of Mission: Impossible movies with ridiculously clunky titles and Tom Cruise almost killing himself for your amusement begin!
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is the live-action feature directing debut from Brad Bird, the dude who made his name with such animated instant classics as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. I remember when it came out at the end of 2011, people were talking about it like it was the greatest action movie ever made or something. When Disney bought Star Wars the following year, the gossip was that they were courting Bird hard to helm Episode VII (he opted to instead make Tomorrowland, a movie that disappointed critically and financially - then, oh hey wouldn't you know it, he went back to Pixar for The Incredibles 2).
In fact, Ghost Protocol's popularity may have lead to a resurgence in both this franchise's popularity and Tom Cruise's career. Not that Tom Cruise's career was ever in "bad shape," but following the Katie Holmes/leaping on Oprah's couch period, he released a string of movies that had fared poorly at the global box office (Valkyrie, Knight and Day, and Lions for Lambs). Even Mission: Impossible III underperformed, posting an opening weekend below that of its predecessor and barely above that the '96 original on its way to becoming the series' lowest worldwide earner to date. Again, take this as a grain of salt, 'cause no one ever confirmed it as far as I know, but Jeremy Renner shows up in Ghost Protocol as a new IMF agent, William Brandt, and the rumor was that Paramount intended to retire Cruise's Ethan Hunt and hand the franchise off to this new fella. But then Ghost Protocol became the franchise's highest-grossing entry by a pretty significant amount, so that if that was ever the plan, they obviously decided not to go with it.
ANYWAY, I'm rambling about this movie really blew people's underpants off because I don't think it's actually all that great. It goes without saying that it's still wwwwwaaaaayyyyy better than Mission: Impossible 2, but it's only a little better than Mission: Impossible III, and still not as good as Mission: Impossible original flavor. It has two really excellent action set pieces and one fun heist sequence and most of the cast is pretty good and that's kinda what it has going for it.
The screenplay is credited to Josh Applebaum & André Nemec, who would go on to write those unwatchable Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles flicks. Cruise has all but explicitly said that future franchise helmer Christopher McQuarrie did some uncredited polishes as well, and I'd be shocked if Bird, who wrote or co-wrote all of his other films, didn't do work, too. All of these people probably deserve some credit and some blame for the finished product.
One good idea someone had was to give some of the supporting members of Ethan's team their own emotional stakes in the narrative, so they're not just one-dimensional puppets who are around solely for practical purposes. Brandt, for example, is living with the guilt off failing to protect Ethan's wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who was killed by a Croatian hit squad intended for Ethan; making matters worse, Ethan doesn't know Brandt is the guy who failed to protect Julia, so Brandt is carrying around this very heavy secret. And Jane Carter (is the character's name a June Carter joke?), played by Paula Patton, has her feathers in a ruffle because this mean French assassin lady (eventual Bond baby mama Léa Seydoux) killed her teammate/BF, Hanaway (Lost's Josh Holloway - is his character's name a joke???). Unfortunately, that means that Carter is in a perpetual state of sadness and/or anger throughout the movie, so Patton doesn't really get to be any fun. Maybe that's why they never brought her back?
Simon Pegg also returns as Benji Dunn from Mission: Impossible 3, except he's a field agent now (Ving Rhames' Luther, meanwhile, only shows up for a cameo at the end). He doesn't have any emotional stakes but it's okay because he's the comic relief and he's very effective in that capacity.
Speaking of lacking emotional stakes, you know who else doesn't really get any this go-round? Ethan! I mean for the most of the movie we're meant to believe he's mourning Julia's death, but said demise is not in any way related to the task at hand. He does see his latest celebrity IMF boss, Tom Wilkinson, killed in front of him, and he's framed for blowing up the Kremlin to boot. So it's not like he has no reason to care what happens. But those things don't even happen until the movie is half-over, and coming off of three films in a row where he has some deeper connection to the mission, it's noticeable and odd.
On the subject of noticeable and odd: Andreas Wisniewski, one of the great '80s action movie Eurotrash bad guys (Die Hard, The Living Daylights), also returns to the franchise for the first time since the first one. In that movie, he was a bodyguard to the arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave), and he makes Ethan put a hood over his head before taking him to see said arms deal Max (still Vanessa Redgrave). In this movie, he's a bodyguard to a completely different arms dealer (not Vanessa Redgrave), but he makes Ethan put on the same hood again. I have no idea why they decided to bring Wisniewski back other than that they like him I guess? Anyway good for him.
Also on the subject of noticeable and odd: The movie's title refer to Ethan and his team having to go rogue. You may have noticed by now that Ethan and his team always have to go rogue in these movies, though - they even lampshade it in Dead Reckoning! - so yeah big whoop. I guess they thought it sounded cool. But it doesn't. It actually sounds like a Gen-Z asshole's dating policy.
The villain this time is a Russian lunatic who wants to get nuclear launch codes so he can start World War III. He says he wants to do this because he believes catastrophic events are necessary for evolution. But I think he just wants to do it because someone working on the script was like "What does the villain want?" and somebody else working on the script was like "What if he wants to start World War III? That works for about 50% of all Bond villains," and the first person working on the script was like "Cool cool cool."¹ He's played by Michael Nyqvist, who at that point was best known for playing Mikael Blomkvist in the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptations, and would go on to be Theon Greyjoy's dad in the first John Wick movie. The character is bland and forgettable. I think that's mostly the fault of the script, but I also think there are other actors who have done more with less (see: Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission: Impossible III). Much more fun is Slumdog Millionaire's Anil Kapoor, hamming it up as a sleazy telecommunications bigwig helping the bad guy.
As I said, though, the movie does have two clutch action set pieces. The first one comes before the opening credits, when Ethan and this goofy dude, Bogdan (Miraj Grbic, who you may recognize as the poor guy who spills out of Jason Statham's punching bag in Fast X), are trying to escape a Russian prison in the middle of a riot while Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" plays over the PA system. It's as much of a comedy sequence and a dance number as it is a fight scene, and it's a fun way to begin the movie in earnest (following a brief prologue in which you see Holloway as Hanaway get blown away).
The second one, it goes without saying, is Ethan scaling the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, in Dubai. Tom Cruise famously did this shit for real - he was over a thousand feet in the air. The scene is tense and funny and the verisimilitude definitely helps - I dunno that it's a good enough sequence in and of itself to work if you know it's Tom Cruise against a green screen. Paramount wisely made this stunt the centerpiece of the marketing campaign around Ghost Protocol, and Cruise doing some insanely dangerous shit for really real is now an expected trope of these films. He recently said he hopes to still be making Mission: Impossible movies when he's eighty. I can't wait to see octogenarian Tom Cruise riding a unicycle through a collapsing tunnel while juggling chainsaws blindfolded. I hope he dies making one of these things when he's in his hundreds. I don't mean that in a cruel way. I think Tom Cruise would be very pleased if his obituary began, "Hollywood legend Tom Cruise died this week at the age of 108 while wingsuiting through a volcanic eruption for a scene in Mission: Impossible XVI." I know Scientology is evil but whatever adrenochrome-filled baby blood Tom Cruise drinks, it's working for him.
In fact, the Burj Khalifa sequence is so impressive that it really calls attention to the inauthenticity of more VFX-dependent sequences, like the Kremlin exploding, and a chase through a sandstorm. Yes of course I understand that they could not actually blow up the Kremlin or expose Tom Cruise to a sandstorm. But the thing is, the CGI in these scenes is mediocre. It just looks like Tom Cruise is running through a video game.
Also, apropos of nothing... during that sandstorm chase, Ethan thinks he's contending with one of the bad guy's goons... but then he rips off part of the goon's face mid-pursuit and realizes it's the big bad himself. Said big bad promptly gets away regardless. I have no idea what the logic behind this decision was and would sincerely love it if anyone could explain to me why it's in the movie. I think that maybe the idea, MAYBE, was for Ethan to be like, "Oh, man, I almost had him!" - except giving Ethan that realization after the chase is over robs it of being meaningful in any real way. It becomes something that just kind of happens.
None of this is even touching on the weirdness of the movie's conclusion, when Ethan reveals to Brandt that Julia's murder was staged so she could start a new life free of Ethan's enemies constantly endangering her. Ethan has known for some time that Brandt was the "agent" who "failed" to protect Julia - but he's just allowed Brandt to walk around feeling guilty because Julia's actual fate had to remain a secret for her protection. Which makes sense until the events of this movie - Ethan has been trusting Brandt for at least a few days now, so there was no reason to allow him to keep thinking he'd screwed the pooch and cost an innocent woman her life. On top of which, Ethan is now watching Julia from across the street - so a) he's definitely increasing the chances of his enemies realizing she's still alive, and b) he's being creepy. The whole scene just makes Ethan look like an asshole.
So, yeah, I don't think Ghost: Protocol is all that amazing. But it was still an important step on the way to McQuarrie taking over the franchise with Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. And that's when shit REALLY got good.
¹Indeed, Bond villains usually have only one of three plans. They either want to 1) steal or create some super-scary MacGuffin they can use to take over the world (From Russia with Love, Thunderball, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Man with the Golden Gun, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, GoldenEye, Die Another Day, Spectre, No Time to Die), 2) start World War III (Dr. No, You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, The Living Daylights, Tomorrow Never Dies), or 3) control the world's supply of one particular thing (Goldfinger, Live and Let Die, A View to a Kill, License to Kill, Quantum of Solace). Once in a while, they want revenge against MI6 (The World is Not Enough, Skyfall) or they just wanna win a goddamn poker game so they don't get in trouble with their boss (Casino Royale), but usually, it's one of the other three.