Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol [Blu-ray]

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Once upon a time, wet bank holiday weekends were reserved for afternoons with James Bond. But these days there are plenty of pretenders to 007’s throne, and Mission: Impossible with its roots in the 1960s TV series is one of the oldest and most venerable – which doesn’t mean to say that it’s looking on its last legs by any means.

This is a beautifully shot film, through some stunning locations in Eastern Europe, Dubai and India, and with plenty of stunning action sequences, thrills and explosions, but which for once also has some strong characters outside of the central role of Ethan Hunt (played once again by the film’s producer, Tom Cruise) and is directed with considerable skill by Pixar alumni Brad Bird. I can’t think of a single ‘duff’ moment in the film, or a performance that’s less than fully committed and top-notch. It’s about as shining a piece of professional filmmaking as you can get and still have a mass-market blockbuster.

And yet for all its undoubted strengths, I find myself struggling to say that I really got involved or was swept away by the film as it played out. It was always watchable and entertaining, and yet curiously unmoving at the same time. It is something to be admired – and is certainly easy to do so – but somehow harder to like with any genuine passion, which is a shame. The nearest equivalent I can think of is the admiration I feel for some electronics manufacturers like Sony and Samsung that produce really excellent products; but which still don’t produce a tenth of the emotional connection that Apple somehow conjures up out of no where for its iPads, iPhones and iMacs.

If I have a specific, identifiable criticism of the fourth film in the M:I franchise, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, it might be that it is simply too episodic and stop-start. We go through four or five separate intricate scenario set-ups and executions during the course of the movie, equivalent to four or five episodes of the original TV series on which it is based. One after the other, with only a few beats of character building between them before we’re off again. The first couple of times is exhilarating; the later sequence in Dubai also just about holds its own, although after the jaw-dropping antics on the side of the skyscraper it does seem to go on through twist and turn for an incredibly long time. But at some point I just found myself thinking, “What, again?” as a new scenario was rolled out – especially as each new mission was a result of the previous mission having gone wrong. And I was slightly irked when the final climactic moment involved an unexplained plot point ‘cheat’ and a little too much cheese, together with the film’s least convincing moment of CGI which resulted in a bit of a damp squib finish.

Overall it was like they were doing a ‘best bits’ of all the M:I outings of the past, small and big screen, but cramming them into 20-30 minute slots, and at some point I just stopped caring about the whole as much as I should or needed to. In fact the film feels like something of a compendium and pastiche, reminding you of many things but not quite deciding on its own identity – maybe an appropriate ambition for an espionage film. At times it plays like a Bond film, but without the cocksure arrogant swagger; at others it seems to want to be a Bourne outing, but at the same time it’s too polished and glossy (not to mention outrageous!) to achieve that film’s gritty realism no matter how much it tries. Other popcult references come thick and fast, the most obvious being the scene set in an automated car parking facility in India that is a direct lift out of the original Thunderbirds series in concept, but which actually plays out like the climax of Monsters, Inc. in terms of action and story.

It seems churlish to complain, especially when the film really does actually manage to create interesting characters in the middle of all of this that you do really start to care about, in stark contrast to most stunt/FX-heavy action films these days. For the first time since Mission: Impossible made the jump to motion pictures, we actually have an instalment that cares enough about the original series format to set up a credible, fully-realised team of agents without using them as canon fodder or as traitors within ten minutes of introducing them. All of them have believable and individual backstories to make them more than just agents doing their jobs, and all of them are very well played. For once, the M:I film is not just a Tom Cruise one-man band, and it’s hugely the better for it.

Simon Pegg is a holdover from the previous film as the tech geek who is finally allowed out in the field: not only is he the main source of humour, he’s also the main point of audience identification as the ‘everyman’. Paula Patton is beautiful and very believable as a dangerous agent in her own right, but the real surprise is Jeremy Renner who gets to provide a considerable amount of comedy himself as well as a dose of pathos and playing the action hero understudy to Cruise (who is, as ever, taking the whole thing with a total straight-faced lack of humour at the centre of things.) Renner should make an interesting new lead on the Bourne franchise; it’s interesting how much he resembles Daniel Craig, too …

The film demonstrates its artistic credentials by picking up the lead of the original Swedish film adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Michael Nvqvist, although inevitably as arch villain he doesn’t get much to do other than look fanatical and evil; and there’s a nice humorous cameo for Indian superstar Anil Kapoor as the target of a sting in Mumbai. To cap things off there are three very welcome uncredited cameo appearances, one with a very real impact to the plot that I honestly hadn’t expected, and another – Tom Wilkinson playing the boss of the IMF – a welcome face in the middle of the chaos.

It’s a good Blu-ray, one of those films with such spectacular location shooting that to have it in anything other than high definition is a lost opportunity. There’s also clearly been some time taken on the extras, which while short and few in number are put together well and have some thought paid to them rather than just being whatever offcuts they had lying about the editing room at the end of the day.

Perhaps I just need to watch the film again to get into it at a more visceral level rather than hanging on to the plot coat tails of the various mission scenario set-ups. It certainly seems to me the best of the four cinematic outings for the Mission: Impossible franchise outing: compared to Brian de Palma’s confusing, icy first spy outing, or John Woo’s over-the-top follow-up, or even JJ Abrams’ (producer this time around) enthusiastic but messy third film, this is undoubtedly the best of them.

Perhaps its only flaw is that it tries too hard to juggle the DNA of all those preceding films, together with the original series and the Bonds and Bournes of the world as well, for its own good or sense of its own identity and inspire its own sense of passion.

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