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

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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  1. January 8, 2012 at 10:23 am

    J. J. Abrams made Alias: The Movie with a pretty good M:I pastiche or two in the middle.

    Yeah, but Alias pretty much was M:I, but with modern television sensibilities….

    —KRAD

    • January 8, 2012 at 10:57 am

      “Yeah, but Alias pretty much was M:I, but with modern television sensibilities….”

      Well, I don’t know about that. Alias had much more in common with the M:I movies than with the show, in that it focused on a sole hero instead of a team, had all sorts of intra-agency intrigue and paranoia and character drama, etc. Also, as I recall, Alias‘s spy action was wild, over-the-top, James Bond stuff — I remember how the early seasons played up the contrast between Sydney’s grounded, realistic everyday life and the pure fantasy of the spy missions. M:I, the show, was much more subdued. It was mainly about the mechanics of the mission/scam, the gadgets, the logistics of the team members playing their respective parts, etc. It wasn’t a spy thriller so much as a spy procedural.

      In fact, the original M:I was ultimately more a show about con artists pulling elaborate scams than a show about spies. It was inspired by the heist film Topkapi. The spy stuff was just a way to make the con artists seem heroic, since ’60s broadcast standards wouldn’t have sanctioned a show whose protagonists were criminals. So the setup was that they were pulling their cons on enemy nations or the mob, so it was morally justified, but the mechanics were those of a con game. The modern show that comes closest to M:I isn’t Alias, but Leverage (which I’ve only just begun watching in reruns, and was instantly hooked on).

  2. January 8, 2012 at 11:25 am

    I agree! What a thrill ride this was and they managed to top M.I. III which I thought was the best of the series at the time. The best portion of the film (in my opinion) of course is the stunt sequence at the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai where Ethan Hunt (and yes, according to many sources that’s REALLY Tom Cruise doing most of the stunt work OUTSIDE of the tower!) uses suction gloves and plenty of wits and guts to get the mission completed.

    And that little ‘gremlins problem’ the team had with the payphone in Russia? It happens again (no spoilers) on the tower with the suction gloves at the worst possible time! Gripping and imaginative stuff!

    In a perfect world, us action fans would be treated to an M.I. film every two years instead of the several year wait between films we endure now. But then, there would be solid arguments against having someone else take over Cruise’s role which I understand since a film of this size depends heavily on a big star because each film costs hundreds of millions of dollars. But wouldn’t that be cool to have a running batch of M.I. films over the next ten years with a different team in each one? Switching up a few of the current ‘hot’ stars as the MIF needs a team each time out and every new member has a unique skill that’s needed on that particular mission?

    Oh well. Such is the business…..With that in mind- I guess we wait with baited breath to see if Cruise has at least one more in him. If he agrees to another mission- maybe we’ll have another thrill ride in say…. 2014?

    • January 8, 2012 at 11:33 am

      “But then, there would be solid arguments against having someone else take over Cruise’s role…”

      Actually I gather that this was initially expected to be Cruise’s last film in the series and that the intent here was to set up Jeremy Renner as the new series lead, but then Cruise decided he might be willing to continue after all.

  3. Tim Webb
    January 13, 2012 at 10:46 am

    Christopher,

    I’m not reading your review to avoid spoilers on MI:GP (I can’t afford a ticket, so I’m waiting on Redbox). Are you going to review the other MI films with Tom Cruise, as a part of your other MI reviews? Or have I missed it? I’ve only seen the films, and one of the MI revivals on ABC in the late 80s or so, I’ve never seen the original and never will. But I’d love to hear your take on the other MI films I’ve seen.

    Thanks, Tim

    • January 13, 2012 at 10:57 am

      “Are you going to review the other MI films with Tom Cruise, as a part of your other MI reviews?”

      I might eventually, but I’d prefer to do the ’80s series first, and to wait until the current film is out on DVD so I can cover all four movies in more detail.

  4. February 23, 2014 at 1:26 am

    I always find myself having to explain to people that IMF (my pet appellation for Mission: Impossible) is more of a con show than a spy show. It’s got more in common with The Sting than the films and novels about James Bond, George Smiley, and Jack Ryan. In fact, IMF and The Sting share a common ancestry: David Maurer’s book The Big Con, which details the various con games of real-life grifters. (The producers of The Sting were sued for not acknowledging their source; the IMF producers were never sued, but they admitted to their inspiration whenever asked.) Of course Topkapi was also an acknowledged source of inspiration for IMF, but as you pointed out in your post about that film, it doesn’t have as much in common with IMF as one would think based on how often they’re spoken of together.

    It’s this con game — the long con, the big con, call it what you will — that’s mostly missing from the IMF films. Which is a shame, because I would argue that it’s not just significant to the TV show, but essential. Not that there aren’t spy, heist, caper, and action elements to it — I think the mixture of these with the con game is what makes the show unique — but I’d say the mind game, the manipulation, and the deceit forms the foundation on which it’s built. For the most part, the films seem to think that IMF is all about sneaking into a secure location and stealing something, and when the agents are caught, chases and explosions ensue. On the show, the theft of an item was usually part of a larger con game to discredit someone, to plant the seeds of mistrust in his organization, to create a Philip K. Dick-like false reality by way of small things like forged documents and impersonated phone calls, all the way up to bigger things like constructed rooms and buildings. If the agents did happen to get caught, one of two things happened, and they rarely involved chases and explosions: either they would have to improvise or move on to Plan B or C or even F, or it would be revealed that they allowed themselves to get caught and it was all part of the plan.

    I hope I don’t sound like a purist here, because ultimately I don’t think any adaptation has much of an obligation to stick close to the source material. You won’t hear me complaining about John Constantine being portrayed as a black-haired American, a midget Sherlock Holmes doing kung-fu, or the Mandarin being revealed as a drunken English actor. I actually quite enjoy all four IMF films (the Blu-rays sit next to my huge IMF TV show DVD box set), even the second one that everyone on the internet these days seems to hate. But I would be lying if I said that I found any of them to be a fully satisfying adaptation of the TV show. Ghost Protocol certainly comes the closest, but it still isn’t quite there for me. I appreciate the continued increase in focus on teamwork, but there’s still too much emphasis on Tom Cruise (he’s clearly the main character, whereas the TV show never had one, not even Phelps), and the one or two scenes we get that involve a genuine con game are the sprinkles on the action/thriller ice cream rather than the other way around. It’s a terrific action spy thriller that occasionally feels like IMF, but pretty much any random episode of Leverage is more deserving of the Mission: Impossible name than Ghost Protocol.

    Speaking of Leverage, sometimes I wonder if the producers of the IMF films watch that show for inspiration. For instance, the big stunt in Ghost Protocol with the car that flips over Cruise and lands inches away from him is almost identical to a stunt in “The Beantown Bailout Job.” It’s the infinite loop of inspiration: the IMF films rip off Leverage which rip off the IMF TV show which ripped off The Big Con and Topkapi… I’m sure you can keep going backwards until you find a cave somewhere in the world with a painting on the wall depicting a caveman being lowered by his pals on a vine into a lions’ den to steal some food.

    • February 23, 2014 at 9:07 am

      Excellent analysis, but I have to quibble with the last paragraph. As you say, the influences go way back, so there’s no reason to assume that any two contemporary works that resemble each other are drawing directly on each other. It’s far more likely that they’re both independently drawing on the same cultural vocabulary and memetic heritage, that the similarities are the result of common phylogeny rather than direct borrowing. The fact is, it’s almost impossible for different creative works in the same genre to avoid copying one another, because they’re both building on the same ancestry and working with similar storytelling syntax. Coincidental resemblance is so immensely commonplace that resemblance in and of itself does not remotely provide evidence of direct borrowing. If anything, if Work A is aware that Work B is doing a certain thing, they’d try that much harder not to copy it, to find some way of being more distinctive. Remember how X-Men: First Class dropped a major psychic-combat sequence because it was too much like the one in Inception? Nobody wants to be too similar to the competition, so if they’re aware of such a similarity, they’ll do all they can to avoid it. So the popular belief that similarity proves deliberate borrowing is getting it totally backwards. True, there are some hacks that build their entire careers on imitation, like The Asylum, which makes all those similarly-titled direct-to-DVD knockoffs of current major motion pictures (Transmorphers, Atlantic Rim, etc.). But most of the time, when dealing with respectable creators, any particularly close similarity between contemporary works is evidence that they were unaware of each other.

      • February 23, 2014 at 3:58 pm

        Very interesting. I wasn’t aware of that First Class scene. I wish they would have gone ahead with it. Surely some minor rewrites could have made it seem less similar to what Inception was doing, if they were so afraid of looking like plagiarists. One area in which I felt First Class was lacking was creative action and battle scenes, though I guess getting the characters of Charles and Eric so right is an acceptable trade-off.

        Anyway, I get what you mean about the inspiration and coincidences. What’s funny to me is that one can rarely tell when similarities are intentional and when they’re coincidental. Or rather, sometimes when it seems obvious that Movie A is ripping off Movie B, it turns out that the creators of Movie A have never heard of Movie B and were actually taking inspiration from Movie C. For example, Bruce Geller admitted to swiping major elements from Topkapi, but there was another TV show in the late 1950s called 21 Beacon Street which was so similar to IMF that a lawsuit was filed and settled, and Geller claimed to have never heard of it. Also, I’ve heard quite a few people accusing Leverage of ripping off Hustle, although the producers have been open about taking inspiration from IMF and The Rockford Files and denied being all that familiar with Hustle. And speaking of the X-Men, there’s that whole Doom Patrol issue, with the evidence suggesting that Stan Lee wasn’t familiar with the latter team when he created the former, despite some pretty incredible similarities.

        And the funny thing about the Asylum is that despite their shameless plagiarism of bigger movies, the fact that they’re a smaller studio lets them get away with some pretty crazy shit. You certainly won’t see Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes fighting a giant octopus, a velociraptor, or a mechanical dragon like he does in the Asylum’s version, and their Transformers rip-off has gratuitous lesbian love scenes that you won’t see in any mainstream PG-13 action thriller. (Although I’m sure that Michael Bay would have included some had he been allowed.) It’s really too bad that we never got an Asylum mockbuster called Assignment: Impossible in which an Ethan Hunt counterpart played by Debbie Gibson must dangle from wires in order to steal an important computer disc from the evil robot donkey terrorist who’s threatening to unleash an army of zombie acrobat dwarves on the major cities of the world.

  1. July 2, 2014 at 11:21 am

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