Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

The fourth installment in one of the most popular, but least interesting action series to come out of Hollywood is a break in form. Yes, it’s still sleek and sexy spywork , but with director Brad Bird behind the camera, the action is tighter, more elaborate and grandiose. The result is the best American action flick since The Bourne Ultimatum

Field technician Benji (Simon Pegg) and agent Jane (Paula Patton) hunt down and pull Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of obscurity in a Russian prison when a nuclear fanatic threatens to start World War III. As Ethan Hunt and his team infiltrate the Kremlin to beat their foes to the nuclear codes, Hunt, Benji and Jane find their selves in an altogether different kind of predicament.

This is because far from being the competent and efficient spy group than can get the job done, they’ve got terrible luck. The smart screenplay builds conflict and tension in the action by constantly adding layers of failure and mistakes that keep the spies on their toes, always just a bit behind the curve, chomping at the heels of success.

This makes a lot of the action set-pieces gripping because the potential for failure and death constantly looms throughout these sequences and the way the film plays with suspense and finds ways to use failure to catapult the film into a whole other sequence of action creates an infectious and compelling series of action sequences.

The action is made even better by the fact that real stunt work can be seen instead of simply CGI stand-ins for stunt work. When Tom Cruise climbs up the side of a building, it looks real because it is real. The authenticity and weight this gives the action cannot be understated in a day where the handful of good action flicks are often plagued with an overreliance on digital effects in the hopes to hoodwink the audience.

Where Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol hopes to pull off a few cheap tricks is in the characters. Ethan Hunt has never been an empathetic character, despite the series attempts to make him progressively more human, and Ghost Protocol’s tacked-on sentimentality of the Cruise action vessel feels like the series cheapest and lowest pandering to pathos to date.

Likewise, the film tries to give the rest of the characters some human warts, but the film never puts in the proper time to develop and evolve these human aspects. It throws in a scene every now and again to try to grasp at humanity. Some of this cheap sentimentality is made up for by the strong cast, but it still can’t cover up the poor writing.

Still, when Tom Cruise is running down the face of a building or fumbling through the dust-filled desert streets, the film achieves pure, unadulterated action movie goodness. The thrills are top-notch and it’s quite possibly the most technically competent Hollywood action film made since Die Hard. The series still has a heart as hollow as a tin man, but as a pure action vessel, it has few equals.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing