The first live-action film from animation director Brad Bird (“The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles”) is pure adrenalin rush. It has the best stunts of the year and crackerjack mastery of pace in this fourth “Mission: Impossible” movie.
More “inspired by” than “based on” the 1960’s television series, the series features Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, an agent who operates outside even the ultra-clandestine world of spies. The most direct tie to the original program is in the presentation of new assignments. They include video as well as audio four decades later, but the recording still intones, “Your mission, should you decide to accept it…” and end by advising him that if anyone on the team is caught or killed, the US government will disavow any knowledge of the operation. And then it self-destructs — this time with a witty twist.
We begin with a classic spy setting, a document drop gone very wrong. There’s a guy with a laptop in a van. There are guards playing a card game in front of a bank of monitors. And there’s a field operative in some sort of hallway. Ethan has to be broken out of a Russian prison, and for some reason it has to happen before the end of the song, “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” by Dean Martin. A meticulously orchestrated plan is amended on the spot and the guy in the van says, “I don’t know what he’s doing and for some reason I’m helping him.” What Ethan is doing is bringing another prisoner along with him. He sticks by his friends, he explains.
After Ethan is in the wrong place at the wrong time and aborts a mission that takes him to the heart of the Kremlin only to be blamed when the whole building blows up, “the Secretary” (Tom Wilkinson) shows up to say that the entire Mission: Impossible force has been shut down and it is time for “ghost protocol,” a mission that is off the books for those who are already operating off the books, kind of a spy version of double secret probation. I just have to ask — the Secretary of what? The head of the CIA has the title “Director.” Cabinet officers are hardly low profile. But he’s not around long anyway, and with the M:I force disbanded and no time, Ethan has to work with the people already there. That’s field agent Gorgeous (Paula Patton as Jane), tech guy Comic Relief (Simon Pegg as Benji), and Mystery Guest Who Says He is an Analyst But Fights Like a Field Agent (“The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner, soon to be Hawkeye in “The Avengers,” as Brandt).
They’re after a dangerous guy code-named Cobalt (Michael Nyqvist of the Swedish “Dragon Tattoo” series). He’s one of those super-villains who is not only off-the-charts brilliant but also in great shape and with outstanding hand-to-hand combat skills. And if they don’t stop him a lot of very bad stuff is going to happen. The details are not important; they’re just a delivery system for action and stunts that includes a wild chase though a sandstorm, a crazy fight scene in a parking lot with vertical conveyer belts and revolving platforms (has Bird been consulting with his old boss re “Cars 2?”), a fall into fan shaft, kept just above the sharp blades by a magnet suit, and Ethan’s heart-stopping ascension along the side of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, 100 stories above ground with nothing but a pair of very sticky mechanical gloves — and then just one glove. What’s fun is what goes right — all the cool gadgets and clever plans. What’s cooler is when things go wrong — mechanical failures and just plain being outsmarted by a very clever bad guy. Our crew visits world capitals and a secret hideout in a train car and has run-ins with an assassin, a weapons dealer, the Russian police force, and a playboy billionaire. And of course, as all glamorous spy movies must, there’s also a pause for a big, fancy party so our crew can get all gussied up. Though I can never figure out why no one at the party ever notices our crew having conversations with the air Patton is spectacularly beautiful.
Renner is terrific in this, playing very well off of Cruise’s intensity and performing the action scenes a Steve McQueen-style economy of motion (I was pleased to see that he is currently working on a biopic of McQueen). He also shows great comic timing in a scene where he has to force himself to do something dangerous. I liked the way the story tied into the third in the series (director J.J. Abrams of III was a producer on this one). But the post-mission coda was under-scripted, with dialog that would have been out of date in the days of the television series. And even by the low don’t-think-too-hard standards of chase and explosion films, the plot has some big holes. But no one is buying a ticket for witty repartee or realism. This is just for fun and it is enormously entertaining.
Parents should know that this film has constant very intense but not too graphic action violence with chases, bombs, guns, explosions, and fistfights, characters injured and killed, mild sexual situation, and brief strong language (s-word)
Family discussion: Which gadget would you most like to have and why? What makes Ethan want to operate outside the official intelligence operation? Would you make a different decision about the information Brett and Ethan kept secret?