I can’t recall another film franchise in recent history that has as noticeable an increase in quality as the Mission: Impossible series. Sometimes, a movie franchise either starts crappy and remains so, or starts brilliantly and maintains its brilliance throughout. Most common in film series is for them to start fantastically, but then drop in quality when sequels are made. The Mission: Impossible series is an anomaly.
There have been film franchises that have managed to improve on their origins, but even when that does occur, there is most often a solid foundation. The Bourne Identity, for example, may have been the weakest of the three movies, but it was still pretty good. To have a series begin at the very low end of the quality spectrum and rise to the opposite extreme is practically unheard of. Yet that is what it would seem happened with the M:I movies.
The first Mission: Impossible was not amazing. The film has its fans, to be sure, but I found that when it wasn’t going laughably over-the-top with its action scenes, it was piling plot twist upon plot twist, resulting in a bombastic and labyrinthine mess. Mission: Impossible 2 was even worse, managing to make outrageous stunts seem dull and fashioning one of the most forgettable plots of an action movie this side of The Living Daylights.
Yet something fascinating happened with Mission: Impossible III. Somehow, against all odds and expectations, it wasn’t terrible. In fact, it was absolutely fantastic. A lot less people watched the third M:I movie, both because some people were so disappointed by the first two entries (or just the second) and because it was Tom Cruise’s first starring vehicle since his notorious appearances on Oprah and The Today Show.
I didn’t race to see the M:I III when it was released. I really didn’t care about the fact Cruise as a person seemed a little… off – I’ve always been one to judge an actor by his work not by his personal values – but having been so disappointed by the first two M:Is, I had no real interest in the third one, until I kept hearing how great is actually was.
And it really was. Somehow, despite having a bad first entry and a horrible second, the Mission: Impossible series delivered arguably the best action movie of the 2000s with Mission: Impossible III. So as I waited for Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol to start, I didn’t know what to expect. Was Mission: Impossible III a sign of the late beginning of a great franchise, like The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, or a glorious fluke in an otherwise disappointing series? I’m pleased to say it was the former.
The plot is as irrelevant as those of the first three entries. The M:I movies aren’t fueled by plots; they’re fueled by catalysts. The players are the same. Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, is the American James Bond, going on seemingly impossible missions with fellow agents in his secret government division IMF (the bluntly named Impossible Mission Force).
In Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Cruise and the entire IMF department are disavowed after a failed mission results in a devastating explosion within the Kremlin, interpreted by Russia to be an American act of war. Intent on clearing their name, finding the culprit of the explosion, and preventing Russian retaliation, Cruise and two other now-rogue agents (new-to-the-series Paula Patton and the impishly-amusing Simon Pegg) have to make do with just one transport van of supplies and an intelligence analyst begrudgingly dragged along (a much-better than called-for Jeremy Renner, holding his own against Cruise in every scene).
Something interesting occurred to me watching Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. Since 2006, I’ve felt the need to justify liking the third M:I, based partly on the fact the first two were stinkers that left a stigma with the series’ brand. I’ve often said it would have performed better had it not even used the Mission: Impossible label. I was also doing so because I viewed the series as a sequential order of movies, a continuing tale of the same character in separate chapters. Watching the fourth entry with the Mission: Impossible moniker, however, I’m seeing things differently. I’m finally able to step back far enough to see the experiment Paramount Pictures is conducting with these movies.
Imagine you went into a Kindergarten class of 25 kids, handed each child an identical set of K’Nex or what-have-you, and told them to each build a ferris wheel. All the children would build ferris wheels and use the same basic set of parts, but each one would end up looking and functioning slightly differently. Some would look really cool, but perhaps the wheel wouldn’t turn smoothly. Some might not dazzle with style but function perfectly. Others still would fall over right away or break right after the crank began to turn.
Paramount has done just such an experiment with this series. Even though there are the occasional moments in each script where earlier characters are briefly alluded to or brought back for a cameo just to provide a basic semblance of continuity, each movie really exists separately and outside the order in which it was made, much like the James Bond series.
Most fascinatingly, though, each Mission: Impossible movie has been helmed by a different action director. Each one has had the skills to make a great action movie, and the challenge has been what they can each do with the same kit of parts.
Brian De Palma, known for his over-the-top scenes of excess and plot twists in movies like Scarface and The Untouchables, was given the reigns first, which is why Mission: Impossible turned out the way it did. John Woo, master of slo-mo action interpreted as dance and random shots of flying birds, gave Mission: Impossible 2 its style and also the flaws therein. J.J. Abrams, the action and mind-screw expert who created Alias and Lost, refined the parts into a slick machine with Mission: Impossible III. With the new M:I movie, Brad Bird (director of The Iron Giant and The Incredibles) was given the ingredients and let loose in the kitchen.
Bird’s background in animation has served his jump to live-action films perfectly with Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. Because animation is such a visual medium, Bird brings a style to the film that is almost impossible to nail down or define. To say it’s like watching a live-action cartoon wouldn’t be entirely correct, as the movie always stays just a few steps shy of being completely unbelievable. It always feels exaggerated in just the right amount, like Speed or GoldenEye.
There is one sequence in particular that is one of the best-executed action scenes in recent memory. It’s the one from the trailers and commercials that involves Cruise scaling the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. I found myself so invested and wrapped up in the insane tension of it (masterfully ratcheted by Bird) that I kept squirming in my seat, occasionally unable to even look. I even found myself chuckling at just how much the movie was playing me, as also did every other audience member in the theatre.
I had one problem with the movie, but I will leave it to you to decide how small or large a flaw it will be for you. You know how the best action movies, like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Terminator 2: Judgment Day, alternate intense scenes of thrills with short moments of quiet or conversation? Those scenes have the basic function in a script of bridging one scene with another, but for the audience, they serve to let us quickly recuperate after one action sequence and prepare ourselves for the next adrenaline rush.
Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol has virtually none of those moments. Even the slowest scenes have tension or anticipation boiling just under the surface. Some may find it doesn’t bother them. Others may find they are tense for so long without any break that their muscles end up sore. While it wasn’t enough of an issue for me that I walked out of the theatre weak from gripping the armrests, it did have the psychological effect of dulling the scenes in the third act for me, as I was just too overwhelmed to properly appreciate the final sequences fully. Without taking a second or two in between bites of food, it’s hard to savour the taste.
In the end, blaming an action movie for having too much action is a minor quibble. The fourth Mission: Impossible is a fantastically good action movie. It falls just shy of being the best in the series (if only because Mission: Impossible III had those bridge moments to let the audience breathe in between the tension), but judged purely as an action movie, it is one of the best action movies of 2011.
Paramount decided this entry should ditch the numerical pattern the series had established with its titles and instead added the subtitle Ghost Protocol. While it certainly is a typographical nightmare writing the full title of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, it does serve to accentuate the movie as its own entity rather than as part of a series. I honestly hope the pattern continues, with a new subtitle each time instead of any more numbers. Now that I realize it doesn’t matter the order the movies are watched in – or even whether you watch all of them – I can appreciate how the series functions within and without itself, much like the separate-but-whole 007 series. I hope Paramount embraces that, going forward.
Craziest of all my revelations caused by Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol is that the M:I series is not just similar to the Bond series in non-sequential nature, it’s become an alternate James Bond franchise. The tone of the Bond series was abandoned for a completely atypical one with 2005’s Casino Royale; Paramount Pictures has picked up the torch and continued the feel of the Brosnan 007 movies, first with M:I III in 2006 and now with M:I–GP. Both of them have the same feel as GoldenEye, if perhaps with just a more American sense of humour. The first two M:I movies may have stunk, but hey, The World is Not Enough wasn’t Pierce Brosnan’s finest moment, either.
In the end, the upcoming 007 entry Skyfall has its work cut out for it. Not only does Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol prove the third M:I wasn’t a fluke, but it throws down the gauntlet. The Mission: Impossible series is now doing James Bond movies better than Bond himself.