(I promised to review more Oscar contenders in the waning days of 2011. Well, this isn't one of them. But it is the No. 1 movie at the box office — you'll have to take what you can get.)
So how do you freshen up this franchise? By bringing in a director who has never done a live-action film before. Brad Bird, the man behind Pixar's "Ratatouille" and "The Incredibles," takes the helm this time and largely succeeds. He proves he can make real people (not just computer animation) come to life on screen.
You get the sense that every shot of the movie was meticulously arranged, just as Pixar animators laboriously render one of their films. But the new "Mission: Impossible" also is surprisingly uncartoonish. When Cruise repeatedly slams into cars and other large machinery, it feels like it really hurts — even if there's never a mark on him afterwards.
That's not to say the film isn't ludicrous, but it's a good ludicrous, in keeping with the tradition of the series. This movie jumps from one set piece to the next, pushing the intensity as far as it will go. It's not good enough for Cruise to swing into the window of a skyscraper 130 floors up. He has to run out of rope, then rely on the wind, then miss the window, then get pulled in after barely grasping someone's arm.
What I like is there's clarity to the action. It's always easy to follow who is punching whom and where people are in relation to one another. This may not sound like a big deal, but after more than a decade of Michael Bay and Guy Ritchie, we've come to accept unintelligible action sequences. Even Christopher Nolan, one of my favorites, has trouble orchestrating a cogent fight scene.
J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot produced the film, along with Cruise himself). It's a run-of-the-mill premise involving a villain trying to get launch codes so he can start a nuclear war between Russia and the United States. ("Ghost Protocol" refers to the U.S. government having to disavow knowledge of the Impossible Missions team, which I kind of thought they already did.) In any case, all that doesn't matter much. The series has always been more about the missions and figuring out how the agents will complete their immediate tasks.
The action takes us to Moscow, Dubai and Mumbai in search of the launch codes, and the agents get to use some pretty cool technology (everything from magnetic hover suits to holographic room dividers). I also was excited to see San Francisco get a cameo — specifically, the Transamerica Pyramid. But I always wonder why these jobs require them to do so much globetrotting. Couldn't an entire mission take place in suburban Toronto for once?
The cast was solid, with Simon Pegg providing comic relief and Jeremy Renner (from "The Hurt Locker") playing the team's mysterious newcomer. It also was good to see Josh Holloway (Sawyer from "Lost") make an appearance, even if they kill him off almost immediately. (I guess "Lost" killed him off as well, but then, they killed everyone off.)
A couple plot points didn't make a lot of sense, including the part where the villain disguises himself as one of his henchman (to what end?). Also, could the Impossible Missions Force please stop referring to themselves as the IMF? It's confusing because we already have a well-known entity known as the IMF. It's called...the IMF.
Another quibble: The final scene was a bit hokey and fell flat. (During a discussion about teamwork, I almost expected the characters to break into the "Wonder Pets" theme: "What's going to work? Teamwork!") Until that point, "Ghost Protocol" rarely lets up. It even manages to make a sequence in a parking garage into a thrill ride. I could point out the implausibility of an Indian garage filled with left-side-driver cars. But if that's going to bother you, this may not be your kind of movie.
BuboBlog Rating: 3.5 asterisks (out of 4)