After an incursion into the Kremlin goes explosively awry, secret spy force IMF is shut down and its agents disavowed. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his small band of allies have mere days to prevent wily terrorist Hendricks (Nyqvist) from unleashing nuclear winter on America’s West Coast.
No need to wait until summer for The Amazing Spider-Man. The main attraction in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird’s frisky take on Paramount’s spy property, is a dizzyingly brilliant action sequence set high above Dubai, in and around the 130th floor of the Burj Khalifa. It was inevitable, given Tom Cruise’s career-long quest to clamber up increasingly vertiginous objects, that eventually he’d take on the world’s tallest building. But unlike the rock-climbing bit in M:I-2, this isn’t just an excuse to flaunt his triceps. As our hero miraculously ascends the sheer glass wall, staking his life on a pair of futuristic magnet-gloves powered by shonky batteries, Bird slows things down and lets us feel the height. Then he lets rip, throwing in hazard after hazard, flinging his star about like a rag doll and generally whipping up tension like a sandstorm (the scene has one of those, too). It’s pure popcorn cinema — thrilling, playful, seemingly CGI-free — and by far the movie’s standout.
That’s not to say the rest is a big letdown. After a brisk opening in a Russian prison, where Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is found bouncing a rock off his cell wall like a buffer Cooler King, there’s hardly a pause for breath before he’s marching into the Kremlin, armed only with a Des Lynam moustache and reversible jacket. This set-piece establishes the tone. The previous entry in the franchise, J. J. Abrams’ M:I-3, was the intense one, where Hunt was forced to confront his past and Philip Seymour Hoffman sweated a lot. It grossed less than its predecessors, so for the fourquel Cruise has gone for a fizzier, sillier vibe, recruiting Pixar golden boy Bird for his first foray into live action. There are shades of The Incredibles to be found in the bonkers technology (contact lenses that double as cameras; iPads that sprout holograms) and peppy, clearly storyboarded-to-an-inch-of-its-life action. The pace, for the most part, is relentless: there’s no romance — despite a smidgen of token light flirting between Ethan and new team member Jane (Paula Patton) — and minimal exposition.
Which is just as well, as this fourth instalment’s biggest weakness is its plot. No doubt it’s devilishly hard these days to think up a fresh adversary for a team of world-savers, but the Big Bad here is as stale as they come: a crazed terrorist (Michael Nyqvist) with a jones for triggering nuclear annihilation. It’s unclear exactly what he hopes to achieve, but as the film piles on the usual tropes (a briefcase full of codes, a submarine, a satellite), it all starts to feel one Jonathan Pryce away from becoming a Brosnan Bond. There’s sag, too, in the final stretch, which throws in Slumdog Millionaire’s Anil Kapoor as a horndog millionaire and a mêlée in a bizarre sci-fi car park.
Even with these flaws, Ghost Protocol (a cooler title than Skyfall?) remains fun from start to end. This is largely due to an increased focus on team play, with Cruise, who’s now finally starting to look his age, especially on an IMAX screen, yielding a few of the action beats to co-star Jeremy Renner and even letting Simon Pegg have a gun. Pegg, who’s been promoted to second lead following his few techy scenes in M:I-3, has effectively become Danny Butterman to Cruise’s Nicholas Angel, tagging along for the dangerous stuff while sporting a goofy grin. His Benji isn’t quite the comedy powerhouse that the film thinks he is, but that’s more a fault of the script, which is often not quite sharp or funny enough. Still, if Bird’s aims were to revitalise the franchise and prove he can orchestrate real-world balletics as expertly as the pixelated kind, it’s mission accomplished on both counts.
Still not an essential series like Bourne or Bond, but this entry has a refreshingly light touch and some of the best action of 2011. See it at an IMAX for optimal vertigo-inducing effect.