A franchise on Cruise control
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Dec. 16, 2011
Hand it to Tom Cruise: Even on the cusp of the creaky age of 50, he still manages to do his own stunts, look studly in a suit and maintain perfect hair sweepage.
All those talents come into play in "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," the fourth installment of Cruise's behemoth of a franchise, in which his IMF agent Ethan Hunt bears more similarity to a steroid-popping James Bond than the urbane super-spies of the long-lost television series.
Having banished forever the reel-to-reel tapes and latex masks that distinguished that cozy Sunday-night ritual, Cruise has turned the series over to concussive action and eye-popping set pieces designed to show himself off in the very best, most masculine light.
Narcissism is nothing new in Hollywood, of course, and it doesn't necessarily militate against entertainment value. "Ghost Protocol," which marks the live-action debut of Pixar director Brad Bird ("The Incredibles," "Ratatouille"), possesses the requisite number of expertly choreographed how'd-they-do-that scenes, as well as some terrific supporting performances from "Mission: Impossible" veterans and newcomers.
Simon Pegg, returning from his "M:I" debut in the last film, provides a hugely welcome dose of lightness and comic relief as Benji, a meek British computer nerd who in this installment has finally managed to score a gig in the field. Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner, as new additions to Ethan's team, hit their marks with professionalism and physical competence, with Renner in particular proving that he's ready to assume the central role in the "M:I" franchise if and when Mr. Cruise finally hangs up his carabiners.
For now, though, the audience is instructed to sit back and admire Cruise's physical prowess, which is put most notably on display in "Ghost Protocol's" spectacular stunt-centerpiece, in which Ethan must climb the outside windows of the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai (the world's tallest building), smash in a window, replace a dingus in a computer server, then swing back into his room - all with one hand tied behind his back, at least figuratively, when he loses one of his gecko-esque suction-cup gloves. (In traditional "M:I" fashion, this scene is set to one of several of the film's ticking clocks.)
Running, jumping, scaling glass walls, driving random BMWs - Ethan can do it all, and by extension so can Cruise, a case of self flattery-by-proxy that as both the series and its lead actor ages, has begun to take on the whiff of compensatory overkill. (From the looks of a quick Durer-esque sketch he pens on his palm, Ethan is even an accomplished artist.)
Rather than strain so mightily to remind viewers of his still-rock-hard abs and blue-steel stare, Cruise is more than entitled to remind us that he can actually act. If the Burj Khalifa sequence is the showiest bauble in "Ghost Protocol's" bag of tricks, a far craftier and satisfying episode precedes it, when Cruise convincingly plays Ethan convincingly playing a Russian general and then engages a Kremlin guard in some absurdly clever misdirection by way of a portable screen and rear projection.
That piece of visual legerdemain, as well as Ethan's quarry - Russian nuclear launch codes - are about as retro as it gets in a movie that never hesitates to fall back on a digital cheat or gimmick. Indeed at the outset of "Ghost Protocol," Bird announces his intentions to flout credulity by having a character jump from a tall building into a giant mattress that he has just inflated from a thingamajig he conveniently (and barely perceptibly) tossed a moment before. Bond's own gadget-master Q has nothing on the technology available to Ethan and his team, who, even when they're forced to go rogue - after their infiltration of the Kremlin goes wonky - seem to be able to access unlimited funds, cool stuff and even a private jet. For a group traveling under the radar, they're awfully over the radar.
Then again, how better to schlep from Dubai to Mumbai? There, Bird once again orchestrates a complicated piece of stagecraft, this time a brutalizing showdown set in a moving, multi-level parking garage. By now the frenetic action, gargantuan scale and furious scurryings to save the world will have begun to take their toll - on the audience if not the protagonists, who have managed barely to break a sweat. There's a place in the movies for wish fulfillment, no doubt, including the wish for it all to be over.
Contains sequences of intense action and violence