Film discussion

Looking back at… Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

If the Mission: Impossible franchise had proven anything by the time that its fourth instalment, Ghost Protocol, was released, it was that Tom Cruise wasn’t afraid to do crazy things in the name of Ethan Hunt, but also that the movies themselves weren’t afraid to take their time to come together either.

Making its way into cinemas for Christmas of 2011, it would do so five years after the release of the previous instalment. With the breakdown in the working relationship between Cruise and Paramount Pictures, and both his and Paula Wagner’s failed attempt to resuscitate United Artists, it seemed for a while that if there would be a fourth Mission: Impossible film, it might be without Tom Cruise.

In the end, that wouldn’t happen, and when Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol came to the screens, the first of the series with a subtitle, it would do so spectacularly, drawing in some of the best reviews for series, while also outgrossing the second movie, becoming the most successful film of the franchise thus far, seemingly giving it a new lease of life.

With JJ Abrams busy working on his own personal project, the wonderful Super 8, as well as developing a second Star Trek movie in the shape of Star Trek Into Darkness, the geeky auteur was too busy to return to directing duties, but he would stay on board as producer, the film coming from his Bad Robot production stable.

The script for the movie would be credited to Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, a team who had written for Abrams’ television series Alias, rising through the ranks to become co-executive producers on the series, while frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (Valkyrie, Jack Reacher) would do some uncredited rewrites, and in the end would actually be called upon to write and direct the next installment of the series, Rogue Nation.

In the director’s chair was what seemed like an unusual choice at first. Brad Bird had become famous thanks to his wonderful work in animation; from creating the television series Family Dog, to working on some of the best ever episodes of The Simpsons. From there he had directed the sadly little seen but masterful The Iron Giant and from there had gone on to work on the Pixar classics The Incredibles and Ratatouille.

© 2011 – Paramount Pictures

Making the move to live action was not a complete surprise. Bird had been trying to adapt the novel 1906 for the screen, a potential co-production between Warner Bros. and Pixar, but concerns over the potential film’s cost put the project on hold. It was not long after that Abrams got in contact with Bird about potentially helming the next Mission: Impossible film.

While it might have seemed a strange choice, it really shouldn’t have done. The Incredibles, while being an animated film about superheroes, was in fact acclaimed for its handling of large-scale action sequences which were done with somewhat of a James Bondian flavour and backed by a brilliant score by Michael Giacchino which managed to pay tribute to the work of John Barry.

It may have been five years since the last film when Ghost Protocol made it to screens, but it arrived on screen with bravado and confidence. Opening with a tense sequence involving Josh Holloway as an IMF agent who gets killed mid-action, it may be Holloway’s only appearance in the film (thus continuing the series’ brilliant manner of shocking the audience with the deaths of familiar faces such as Emilio Estevez and Keri Russell), but it’s so well done in such a short space of time that it almost makes you wish we had seen more of his character, Trevor Hanaway.

When we catch up with Hunt, he’s in a Russian prison, bouncing a stone off a wall as if was a bouncy ball, and then being broken out by a returning Benji (Simon Pegg, pretty much becoming a major part of the series) and new agent to the series Jane Carter (Paula Patton, sadly her only appearance in the franchise thus far) that climaxes with a fantastic credit sequence scored magnificently by Giacchino’s version of Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme music.

It manages to grip the audience from the get-go and does not relinquish its grip for one second, building itself through the most engaging plotline of the series thus far and some of the finest action set pieces you can imagine.

Even its central plotline of Hunt and his team of agents, which by midpoint includes Jeremy Renner as intelligence analyst William Brandt, going rogue feels fresh given that the entire IMF has been disavowed when Hunt and Benji’s mission to break into the Kremlin goes disastrously wrong when the Kremlin is blown to smithereens.

© 2011 – Paramount Pictures

It ends up taking the film to Dubai and quite possibly one of the finest pieces of stunt work ever put to film made even more unbelievably good by the fact that Cruise himself is doing it for real.

The setting for the film’s most famous moment is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. With nothing but a pair of special gloves created by Benji that can allow Hunt to scale the building without the help of a cable, Bird’s dizzying direction and incredible use of IMAX cameras and framing helped the film not only with an incredible poster image but also allowed it to steal headlines with Cruise once again going out of his way to do some of the craziest stunt work in recent movie history.

It is one of the most vertigo-inducing action sequences ever put to screen, complete with brilliantly torturous camera angles that put emphasis on the building’s height, complete with suspenseful moments when Ethan’s gloves fail at the worst possible time.

Of course Cruise didn’t actually scale the building with the gloves alone, he was securely attached, but just the image of one of the world’s biggest movie stars actually hanging from the side of one of the tallest structures in the world was crazy and iconic enough for it to be put on to the poster alone in some territories.

The sequence that it is a part of is superb, with so many balls in the air for the film to juggle; Hunt scaling the building, the team having to disguise Brandt with the series famous use of a latex mask, to the gizmo which creates the mask failing to work, all in order to meet with Hanaway’s killer, Sabine Moreau (Lea Seydoux, who would go on to appear in the James Bond film Spectre) and eventually building to a massive foot chase through a sandstorm that engulfs Dubai.

It’s all breathtaking stuff and not for one moment does the film lose momentum as it heads towards its finale involving Mumbai, a parking lot, a nuclear weapon launch, and many, many falling cars. It’s popcorn filmmaking of the highest order and gave the series a kick that it has yet to stumble with.

Even more brilliantly, depending on how you look at it, after spending the first few movies bringing in directors to put their own stamp on the series (Brian De Palma’s paranoid thriller, John Woo’s melodramatic high-octane popcorn flick), it appeared that the franchise had found a style and attitude, not to mention characters and ongoing plot developments, to deal with on their own.

© 2011 – Paramount Pictures

Bird’s direction and stylings are very similar to Abrams, managing to recall the teamwork aesthetic of Bruce Geller’s television series but married to some truly spectacular modern action to bring in a crowd to the multiplex, but it also doesn’t forget about previous events. You can watch Mission: Impossible 2 without having seen the first one and be fine, but the screenplay and events here don’t forget about events of the third movie, a daring choice given that it was the lowest grossing film of the series.

Ethan has seemingly thrown himself into work and a Russian jail following some very dark events after his marriage to Julia. Michelle Monaghan is absent throughout, seemingly killed between movies, thus giving us a motivation for Ethan allowing himself to be thrown into a Russian jail in the name of a mission.

As it turns out it was all a ruse and in the film’s final moments, complete with Giacchino wonderfully reusing his romantic themes from the previous movie, we see she is actually alive and well. It’s the first time the series has acknowledged previous events and it works, showing that the series had found a way to work in past movies and actually find a way to find some linkage between its stories and the character of Ethan.

One could even make the argument that the first two movies were simply stand alone Tom Cruise thrillers and that the third movie is the real beginning of the franchise given that this movie continued threads from the last one, while the forthcoming Fallout, based on the trailer, is set to accommodate not only certain plot points from this and the third movie, but also Rogue Nation.

© 2011 – Paramount Pictures

After being content to simply make this a series with a differing tone and style for each movie, it appeared that the franchise had actually found an identity and style all of its own.

Released into cinemas in the Christmas period of 2011, the film was a well deserved massive box office smash, grossing $694 million. It was the first film of the series to be released outside of the summer; and despite competition against Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, it more than held its own, showing that the franchise still had considerable legs and that audiences would still flock to see a Tom Cruise film if he was willing to place his life in danger in order to put some of the most spectacular stunts on to film.

The series has not looked back and after trying to compete with the likes of James Bond and Jason Bourne, it looked as if the Mission: Impossible franchise had finally found a way to not only become equal to them but also to compete with them on their own spy turf.

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