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M:I: GHOST PROTOCOL: At last, an actual MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie

This week I got my semi-annual royalty check from my publisher, and it was a lot bigger than I expected (yay!), so I celebrated by going out to a bookstore and a movie.  The movie I picked was Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which I’ve been looking forward to, since I’m a big fan of its director Brad Bird’s previous films The Iron Giant and The Incredibles (and to a lesser extent Ratatouille), and I was eager to see what he could achieve in live action.

And Bird didn’t disappoint me. This is the best M:I movie ever. It was the kind of movie I’d expect from an animation genius like Bird, full of richly imaginative visuals and action composition — and I don’t just mean action in the sense of fights and chases, but in the sense of cause and effect, one thing leading to another, like the delightful touch of the progression of Ethan’s goggles from the Burj Khalifa climbing scene through the meeting scene to the sandstorm scene. And it had a lot of Bird’s wonderful sense of humor as well, full of marvelously funny action gags (like Ethan going back to smack the phone when it didn’t self-destruct in five seconds, or trying to use the retinal scanner on the moving train car) and character bits (mainly Simon Pegg’s Benji and Jeremy Renner’s Brandt, who have a good comic interplay). It wasn’t as deep with the characters and emotions as The Incredibles was, but it was highly entertaining, with lots of inspired set pieces. I actually didn’t find the much-touted Burj Khalifa sequence to be the highlight of the film. There were so many other sequences that were just as cleverly scripted, designed, and executed, just as frenetic and intense. If anything, it was a little too much — I felt a bit overloaded by the end of it.  But it was too much of a good thing.

Best of all, it’s the first Ethan Hunt film that really feels worthy of the title Mission: Impossible.  Previously, this film “series,” if you can even call it that, was three radically different spy films reflecting their respective directors’ sensibilities more than they reflected each other or the television series they were named for.  Brian De Palma made a De Palma-style paranoid thriller with some trappings of Mission: Impossible.  John Woo made a Woo-style action thriller with even fewer trappings of M:I.  J. J. Abrams made Alias: The Movie with a pretty good M:I pastiche or two in the middle.  But Brad Bird actually went and made a Mission: Impossible movie.  Granted, it’s also an Ethan Hunt movie, with the characteristic wild action and agent-on-the-run tropes of that protagonist’s prior screen adventures.  And it’s the first of the Ethan Hunt films to actually feel like a continuation from its predecessor; sure, a lot had changed since the previous film, but at least those changes were explained, and there were character threads growing out of what the third film established (which makes sense, since Abrams produced this one).  But Ghost Protocol had more of the original M:I television series in its genetic makeup than any of the previous films — though it’s definitely filtered through Bird’s own voice and sensibilities as a filmmaker.

It started with the main titles. Not only did Bird bring in the iconic fuse-lighting motif as part of the actual action, which was inspired, but he used it to segue into a main title sequence that took the same basic concept as the original series’ titles — the burning fuse superimposed over a progression of scenes from the story we were about to see — and amped it up into a very dynamic, visually imaginative, Pixaresque sequence. Then there’s Michael Giacchino’s music with its liberal use of Lalo Schifrin’s main title theme and an excellent use of Schifrin’s “The Plot” motif leading into and during the Kremlin sequence (though it’s a shame he didn’t use “The Plot” anywhere else in the movie), not to mention peppering the score with Schifrinesque bongos and violin vibratos, so that it felt more like an extension of the original series’ music than any of the previous films’ scores. But it felt like the original M:I in content as well as style. It’s the most team-driven of the movies, not just Ethan plus his support group, but a full ensemble piece throughout like the original was (though with a smaller team size than the series usually had in its first five seasons).  It’s also the first of the movies that didn’t have a romantic subplot per se for Hunt, so the focus was more heavily on the progression of the mission, as it was in the show (there were occasional M:I episodes that gave the leads romances, but such personal involvements were rare exceptions, not the rule they’ve been onscreen).  The IMF is still implicitly a much larger, more centralized bureaucracy as it’s been in the films, but the storyline keeps it mostly off-camera, letting the film feel more like the series, where the team was never seen in any kind of official headquarters and their superiors were invisible and implicit.  (Okay, we actually met “the Secretary” here, a major subversion of the show’s conventions, but it was brief.)  It’s a good compromise between the established realities of the movie universe and the flavor and approach of the show.

And some of the gambits they used were right out of the show. The idea of hiding from guards behind a projection screen, as Ethan and Benji did in the Kremlin hallway, is a modernized, amped-up, much more convincing (and funnier) version of a gambit the original series used in “The Falcon, Part 3.” Controlling the elevators to direct the mark to a duplicate room a floor away from the real one was used in “The Double Circle.” Intercepting both parties in a meeting, having them respectively meet different team members in adjacent rooms, was a gambit they used in “Orpheus” and probably other episodes. And the way Benji helped Brandt get into the server room was in the spirit of the sort of behind-the-scenes stuff Barney and Willy routinely did in the original show, using clever, high-tech equipment to sneak through tunnels and shafts and so forth.  Sure, having the tech go wrong so often was a subversion, something we infrequently saw in the show, but even as a subversion it felt like a reaction to the series’ defining tropes more than those of the movies.

Although Agent Carter, despite sharing a surname with Cinnamon Carter (and I didn’t catch onto that until after the film), was something of a subversion as well, in that she tended to have a much more brute-force approach than was standard in the original series, beating answers out of people instead of tricking them, and she almost fumbled her seduction assignment (though she looked really good in that green dress at the party — not quite as striking as Maggie Q’s dress in the third movie, but almost).  Aside from Hunt, she was the main thing that felt more like part of the movie universe than the TV universe.  But she felt like an outsider trying to adjust to the more clever and devious way of doing things, so that still makes it feel (at least to me) like the movie is treating the show’s approach as the standard.

I had a nice little experience in the final scene of the film. When Brandt was starting to confess to Ethan about the thing he was all angsty over (I don’t want to spoil it), I realized what the upcoming surprise revelation was going to be, and I gasped in delight and leaned forward in anticipation. And then a few lines later, just before the reveal, a woman in the row in front of me — whose face I could see now that I was leaning forward — gasped in realization just as I had.  It was nice to (sort of) share that moment with someone else. Sometimes, even in this age of cell phones and relentless chatter and shoddily run, overpriced theaters, there’s value to seeing a movie with an audience rather than alone at home.

(And no, this isn’t the kind of detailed analysis I did for the TV series.  Maybe someday, I’ll do that for all four movies, just to be thorough, but not yet.)

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