Welcome to Monday Morning Review, a weekly feature here at Movies.com where we provide a review of a film the Monday morning after it arrives in theaters. As such, this review is written for people who have seen the film, and will discuss plot points, spoilers, etc, so read it only if you've seen it or if you don't mind knowing everything that happens.
With its trailer blaring Eminem and hyper-cutting explosions, falls, car crashes and punches, Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol (hereafter M:I IV, because, come on) felt like an implicit promise to the viewer: Come out to the theater, we'll spend a little time, have a few laughs. What's interesting about Brad Bird's live-action debut -- coming as it does in the 4th installment of a 15-year-old franchise that's cherry-picked great, or at the very least intriguing, directing talent from the past 5 decades -- is the seeming modesty of it all. At no point do our heroes (Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner) wind up assaulting a hollowed-out volcano full of jumpsuit-clad minions; the final battle between Cruise's Ethan Hunt and under-written bad guy Hendricks (Michael Nykvist) occurs not in a gleaming white room with shark tanks and lasers but instead a parking garage.
It's hard to say what part of that is from the post-Bond spy action school of thought; historically, 9/11 is a real tragedy, but on a cultural level, it's not untrue or unkind to suggest that Osama Bin Laden killed Blofeld more thoroughly than James Bond ever could. At the same time, so much of M:I IV is taken from that Bond-era playbook -- like, for example, the "Let me provoke a war between the superpowers" plot, which creates an air of Cold War-era menace that has a bracing nip of nostalgic joy to it.
M:I IV also highlight one of the flaws of the entire Mission: Impossible series, which is the tragic under-writing (or mis-writing) or Ethan Hunt, Cruise's character. The most established thing I could tell you about Ethan Hunt is that he's played by Tom Cruise; compared to the things about Bond that we love -- his sense of humor, his smoothness, the web of interactions that make up his life at MI 6 -- Hunt's a cipher and a mystery. It's easy enough to watch Tom Cruise; still, I wish we had a few more reasons than that to watch Ethan Hunt.
And at the same time, considering how the last Pierce Brosnan Bond film went down choking on its gadgets like a dunk on his own vomit-- bad guys with laser-controlling gauntlets, invisible cars -- it's also interesting to note how much of MI: IV revolves around gadgets not working --from the automated mask-maker to the glass-adhering gloves -- and the frustration that comes with that works for both dramatic and entertainment purposes. (As Dave White points out in his Movies.com review, " It's tense, suspenseful, energetic and knows enough to throw in some lighter touches to ward off humorlessness." A lot of M:I IV plays like a heavily-armed workplace comedy.)
If one thing mars the swift and slick pleasures of M:I IV, it's the incredibly poorly-timed coda, with its attendant revelation that Hunts' ex-wife Michelle Monaghan was not dead but, in fact, alive; this meant Jeremy Renner's Brandt could let go of the guilt he felt for failing to protect Mrs. Hunt from death because, hey, it turns out her death was fake. This revelation at the end of the film's a little slow, and worse, it becomes clear in retrospect that it means Renner's character spends a lot of the film as Mopey McGee when Cruise's character could have leaned over and set him straight at any time.
At the same time, it's nice to have an action film that doesn't crawl into your lap with the avid desire to be the bestest ever, like an unruly Golden Retriever; after too many years of Bay-hem in the Transformers films and Guy Ritchie's quick-cut and incomprehensible shooting style for the Sherlock films, a cleanly-cut and framed action move with some good sequences well-executed is worth more to me at this point than unfulfilled promises of brain-blowing wonderment that instead play out on screen like the cut scenes from a videogame you wouldn't want to play, laden with heavy exposition and heavier CGI.
Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol is as good as it is precisely because it knows when to stop at good before trying and failing for an over-pumped, phony sense of greatness -- and that alone means it 's going to hold up while other, bigger-but-lesser action films self-destruct in our own memory over the next few years.
Look: The Ultimate 'Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol' Image Gallery
Read: Brad Bird on the Challenges of 'Ghost Protocol's Massive Action Set Pieces