The sumptuous fourth instalment of the Mission: Impossible franchise wants us to know that it knows we know what to expect. The director, Brad Bird, is ready for us. We expect that the titles will play over the length of a fuse that's been lit. So just before, he has his leading man instruct a cohort, “Light the fuse.” Bird's refashioning of the puff-of-smoke moment — the encapsulation of a new mission in a mundane object that self-destructs after delivering its contents — is funnier. So too the mask moment (and indeed, the revelation of the person who is found wearing a mask in this movie).
Other must-haves of the muscular series — the lip-reading moment, the silence-on-the-soundtrack moment during an action sequence that will thereon be scored only by our pounding pulses — are played fairly straight, but there is a constant sense of reinvention here that makes you see why the James Bond movies slipped, like a sexagenarian partying like he's twenty, into mortifying self-parody.
The comparison is inevitable. It isn't just the plot, which, like Thunderball or The Spy Who Loved Me, pivots on a megalomaniac with a finger pressed on a world-annihilating nuclear device. Like Bond, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is a Swiss army knife in the guise of a man, handy for everything from stealing an envelope to saving the planet. (Though Hunt, despite that name, doesn't prey on women. The libidinous spy is so last millennium.) And there are the outrageous stunts, grandly choreographed set pieces unfolding in various nooks of the world (including Mumbai, where Anil Kapoor pops up for three seconds). But the Mission: Impossible movies have lingered longer in our affections because they aren't as frequent and they're made by unique filmmakers, using the same ingredients in slightly different recipes.
Brian De Palma served us an icy thriller, juiced up with paranoia. John Woo's stab was an overcooked mess, an attempt to blend ardour and adventure that looked like someone's misbegotten idea of fusion cuisine until JJ Abrams, in the third instalment, stewed the mix at the right temperature and showed us it could be done. The relationship was pungent, the thrills toothsome as ever — for the first time it appeared that something other than the reputation of the stunt team was at stake.
The emotional beats are beefed up in Brad Bird's film — subtitled Ghost Protocol, behooving a spook who, by the end, vanishes into a cloud of smoke. When Brandt (Jeremy Renner), the new member in Hunt's team, launched into a flashback, I steeled myself for a redundant attempt at imbuing inner life into a character who, so far, has been a chalk outline, but his revelation stops us cold. It's the latest move in the ongoing maturation of Ethan Hunt, who flirted with a co-worker in the first film, fell headlong into love in the second, and got married in the third movie.
Now, in a manner of speaking, he is separated. And thanks to the actor owning the part, he has also matured in other ways. Hunt, for the first time, looks hunted. He limps. He crawls. He needs, more than ever, the people around him, like Jane Carter (Paula Patton), who, through an expertly staged visual gag, prevents him from plunging to his death. The wear and tear is visible.
Cruise surrenders to unblinking close-ups that highlight the furrows on his forehead, the wattle beneath the chin, the pouches under the eyes, the glint of dull silver in the stubble — perhaps for the first time in his career he looks real. He makes us imagine a future Mission: Impossible where he orchestrates a heist to reclaim his frozen pension funds. Ghost Protocol goes on too long, and the story, as always, is a bit of a blur. (They could design a game from these films. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to recount the plot in detail.) The villain, an anonymous cipher, could have borne more menace. But the hero keeps us watching. The salvaging of Tom Cruise's career is suddenly looking to be mission possible.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Director: Brad Bird
Cast: Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton
Storyline: Yet another impossible mission. And you were expecting…?
Bottomline: Solid entry in the series.