Brad Bird Is Such a Great Director That He Even Makes Tom Cruise Non-Irritating

Reviews of the latest films.
Dec. 15 2011 5:17 PM

Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol

Watch Brad Bird’s first live-action movie on the biggest screen you can find.

Still of Tom Cruise in 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.'
Tom Cruise climbs Dubai's Burg Khalifa in in Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol

sTILL © 2011 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

In talking about this big, big movie, let’s begin with the big, big tower. Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is 160 stories tall, and of course you’ve seen that shot in the trailer for Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol (Paramount) where the camera flies over the tower, its spire narrowing to a point while the city floats by far, far below. Well, let me just tell you that that shot—which in a 400-pixel window on your computer monitor looks like something you’ve seen a thousand times before—is awe-inspiring when viewed on a 72-foot-wide IMAX screen. So is the action sequence that follows it, wherein Tom Cruise dangles from a 139th-floor window and runs along the side of the building like the Road Runner.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

Along with many other things—a crackerjack action picture, a smoothly operating product-endorsement machine, a useful guide to the obscuring of Cruise’s annoying persona via millions of dollars of special effects—the fourth Mission: Impossible movie also functions as a primer on how to use IMAX technology to immerse an audience. The scenes on the Burj gave me more vertigo than Vertigo.

M:I-GP is director Brad Bird’s first live-action film after a career spent making animation masterpieces (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, The Incredibles). M:I has always been an auteurist action series—the previous directors were Brian De Palma, John Woo, and J.J. Abrams—and it’s easy and fun to pluck out Bird’s stylistic and thematic obsessions amid the noisy gunplay of this fourth installment.

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An appreciation for unfussy hyper-competence? Check—Ethan Hunt’s team is made up, this time, of uncertain newbies (played by Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, and Jeremy Renner) who draw strength from Hunt’s instinctive talents and preternatural calm. There’s even a nice gag in which Hunt exasperatedly thumps the device explaining his mission when it doesn’t, as promised, self-destruct in five seconds. He does his job; is it too much to ask that everyone else do theirs?

An embrace of the power of the group over the power of the individual? Check—Ethan tries going it alone, but the movie is full of dazzling set pieces cutting from team member to team member as they work together to execute fiendishly complicated plans.

Most of all, though, M:I-GP is recognizably a Bird picture because it exhibits a control of action imagery—a mastery of bodies moving through space—that rivals any non-animated film I’ve ever seen. I worried what would happen when Brad Bird, micro-director, could no longer control his characters’ movements and behaviors on a frame-by-frame level. I shouldn’t have been concerned. He’s solved that problem by ignoring it, treating his actors and stuntmen like so many vectors to be placed perfectly in the frame.

To pick just one of a dozen inventive, exciting scenes, take a fight between Ethan Hunt and the film’s chief baddie, rogue nuclear scientist Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist). The skirmish takes place in an automated parking garage in Mumbai. As the two wrestle for a suitcase containing, basically, the future of the world, they leap from one moving platform to another, crash atop sports cars, swing from ramps, and get caught underneath sedans. It’s a balletic battle through vertical and horizontal space, with humans as cartoon characters who just happen to bleed and break bones.

The plot’s not that important, honestly. The “Ghost Protocol” of the title is an official government disavowal of the Impossible Missions Force after they’re framed for a terrorist bombing in Moscow. So Hunt and his team fight evil on their own, which makes for a nice trim cast compared to the bloated superteams of previous M:I films. Pegg is funny, Patton steely, Renner funny and steely. The most enjoyable performance in the film is given by filmdom’s reigning king of heroic self-regard, Anil Kapoor, last seen in Slumdog Millionaire—or, more accurately, last seen rushing the stage upon the occasion of Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar win. As for Cruise, he’s a piece of meat expertly deployed. Only in a misguided coda, with the surviving team members laughing around a table like at the end of a sitcom, does Cruise manage to irritate. During the rest of the film, thank goodness, he’s too grimly determined to save the world for any of his personality to shine through.

Should you see Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol? By all means, and in the big, big, biggest theater you can find. Don’t watch it on TV, and for God’s sake, don’t download it to your phone. I recommend the LG IMAX Theater in Sydney, Australia, which is eight stories high, but your local multiplex will do. Be prepared, afterward, to feel as if the outside world is just a little bit too small.