“Mission accomplished? You actually said that aloud? You’re still corny, Ethan.” Tom Cruise, the man who sees at least one stunt man go hungry with each new mission, in addition to his nefarious activities for the cult of scientology, is reproved thus in Ghost Protocol’s dying minutes. It’s typical of this sequel’s knowing humour; the kind of audience aware, gentle nudging that former Pixar man Brad Bird has imported from his animated apprenticeship.
Ghost Protocol consistently draws attention to itself this way. Take, for example, the mission briefing from a disguised everyday object, in this case a phone booth. On previous missions it would have self-destructed of its own accord; here Cruise is forced to give it a whack. A gambit used to draw fire from a Russian hit team, a flare attached to a floating corpse, doesn’t have much internal logic and in the previous three entries you’d be asked to just accept it as a genre tick and enjoy the spectacle; here a member of Cruise’s team questions the tactic. “Why would that work?” he asks, pre-empting the audience’s question before it can burrow into their brain and ruin their enjoyment. Cruise explains it with a matter-of-fact rebuttal – “these aren’t rogue scholars”. Welcome to the post-Pixar action movie.
Bird was an interesting choice to direct this sequel, and we may wish to regard the entire enterprise as an experiment designed to test the theory that Pixar’s broad appeal, built on care in story and setpiece construction and gentle, postmodern asides, can be successfully transferred to live action with comparable box office.
Those that enjoy the mechanistic tendency that comes with Pixar’s output – the sense that each shot has been pre-visualised and refined a thousand times before being committed to the finished film; that every joke is tested, redrafted, then tested again, to get the intonation, word order and timing just right, will recognise it here and feel both assured and entertained. The filmmakers have thrown a blanket around the punters and assured them that their every reaction has been anticipated. In future, it may not even be necessary for them to show up. However, those that like a hint of chaos, the illusion of on screen spontaneity, could walk away from this Kremlin caper feeling decidedly unmoved. It’s as well calibrated and indeed, anaemic, as Bird’s Pixar efforts.
What we miss here is that sense of cinema unleashed; a playful presence behind the camera. Brian De Palma’s 1996 original had more moxie; the setpieces were huge and technically proficient, as you’d expect from a man channelling Hitchcock, but De Palma was also out to create an old school man-on-the-run thriller. It didn’t feel much like its TV predecessor but it had energy and style. John Woo’s sequel held everything but the style; it was an empty vessel, but at least he showed up, whereas JJ Abrams flat third instalment, in part sabotaged by Cruise’s patience testing PR fuck ups, was saddled with a boorish domestic undercurrent; thrills subordinate to a relationship between Agent Hunt and a wife that no one cared about.
Abrams wasn’t a movie director then, he hadn’t learnt how to move the camera and create big screen thrills. Watching Ghost Protocol places you in the unusual position of wishing he’d been given another crack at the series, despite his D.O.A entry. Bird does a better job than the Abrams of Mission: Impossible 3, but it’s hard not to think that the director of Star Trek and Super 8 wouldn’t have given this thing a pulse.
Wisely, Ghost Protocol excises the tiresome relationship that dragged down the third movie and turns it into a potential point of tension between Cruise and Jeremy Renner’s Agent Brandt. It’s plotted with greater coherence than the previous sequels; again we can thank Pixar for that; and there’s imagination in the execution of each setpiece, enough to prevent the familiar set ups – breaking in to a seemingly impenetrable government building, acrobatics on the facade of a skyscraper, becoming tired. There’s nothing new in this instalment but boredom, despite the casual pacing and distended running time, never gets a foothold.
Whatever they tell Cruise, the real mission here was to keep Paramount’s cash cow lactating. The 2006 entry was a conspicuously dull affair and audiences stayed away. This time round there’s more warmth, warmer colours and better craic on the trail but it might just be a little too clean and carefully orchestrated for its own good. Where’s the urgency? Should you really be this relaxed with that old standby, the rogue nuclear missile, threatening to vaporise a hundred thousand San Francisco computer geeks? Either I’m a sociopathic luddite or the threat and involvement just wasn’t there. Mission accomplished? The box office will decide but Cruise may yet regret saying it aloud.