In light of the commercial and critical response to the lead balloon that was last year’s execrable Knight and Day, it was looking likely that the days of Tom Cruise being taken seriously as an action lead were well and truly numbered, if not already far behind him. The last instalment in the franchise, J.J. Abrams’ Mission : Impossible III (2006) proved little more than efficient in the pyrotechnic stakes, an increased focus on the soap-operatic relationship dynamics that characterised the director’s television work (most notably Alias) ultimately proving a lacklustre substitution for the labyrinthine, double-crossing convolutions of Brian De Palma’s Mission : Impossible (1996) or even the ludicrous, slo-mo excesses of John Woo’s sequel four years later. So it’s safe to say that a lot rests on Ghost Protocol’s success for the little fella, the publicity machine which rolled into gear over a year ago with production footage from the film’s central Dubai tower set-piece, focussed (as always) on the fact that it was Cruise himself dangling from the side of the world’s tallest building, a sequence which in its heart-stopping finished form offers more than enough to silence even the most stubborn of his critics, whilst simultaneously heralding the arrival of a potentially significant voice in large-scale, live action spectacle in animation stalwart Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles).
Clearly benefiting from a director used to fine-tuning the rhythm of his films’ major sequences in pre-production, a necessity when previously dealing with hours of render time for each second of animated footage, Ghost Protocol is at its best when the pressure’s on. Whilst the Dubai sequence impresses by virtue of its vertiginous scale, its as much a result of the deft cross-cutting that ensures pulse rates are kept up. Even if the wafer-thin character beats and hollow plot machinations make the film in its entirety feel over-extended, there are more than enough bravura set pieces in the course of its two hour plus running time to make the lulls in-between tolerable enough.
As apolitical as any Bond movie, the plot itself barely merits mention, serving mostly as an excuse for the globe-hopping exploits of the IMF team, disavowed after a botched operation in Moscow whilst on the trail of a ‘nuclear extremist’ codenamed Cobalt (Michael Nyqvist) leads to the destruction of half the Kremlin. A prologue that plays out later in flashback attempts to amplify tension between team member Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and assassin Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux), similarly echoed in tag-along analyst Brandt’s (Jeremy Renner) mysterious connection to Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. The flimsy relationship dynamics may amount to little more than filler between the action sequences, but Bird does well to revert to the team-effort that constituted the original series and De Palma's film, seemingly dropped in favour of Cruise’s one-man-band once John Woo took over, even if it does mean more screen time for Simon Pegg’s supposed comic-relief.
After the more downbeat tone of Abrams’ threequel, Bird keeps events light and breezy, introducing Hunt during a prison break set to Dean Martin’s Ain’t That a Kick in the Head and allowing a couple of gags at the expense of the actor’s diminutive stature, as when a pick-up-point retinal scanner aside a moving train proves fixed just that little bit too high. It’s in the action-stakes, however, that Bird shows his best hand, especially making the most of the scale provided by the IMAX frame; a chase through a sandstorm in Dubai, the infiltration and destruction of the Kremlin and a fight scene in an automated car-park all thrillingly executed even if never quite matching the impact of the sequence aside the Burj Khalifa tower. Whilst an extended post-climax scene proves an unnecessary and overly sentimental addendum, the previous two hours deliver more than enough bang for your buck, ultimately making a strong case for its position as perhaps the best pound-for-pound blockbuster of 2011. In terms of narrative and character development, there’s little to make one curious as to the future development of the Mission : Impossible franchise, but it certainly makes a strong case for keeping an eye on Brad Bird.