Chicago Sun-Times columnist Roger Ebert has a way with words. In his essay on director Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows,” he makes a simple yet keen observation about the nature of tautness in story. In his words, “Action releases tension and makes it extenal.” It’s a statement that could help explain why the inaugural Mission: Impossible film works as well as it does. Instead of a flurry of ambitious tent-pole action sequences typical of the later M:I films (”Ghost Protocol” included), the Brian DePalma directed movie settles for just one, the TGV/helicopter chase. And until it happens, we’re asked to hold our breath.
Recall the story: Crisis bodes when an American diplomat threatens to steal and sell the highly classified NOC list, a computer file containing the code names and identities of all IMF (Impossible Mission Force) agents in Eastern Europe. Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) leads a team of younger and better looking agents to intercept. They don’t. What should be a precisely executed sting instead becomes a series of executions, including Mr. Diplomat and Phelps’ entire team save point-man Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). Life only gets worse for Hunt after a rendezvous with IMF director Kittridge (Henry Czerny) reveals the mission to have been a set-up all along, a sham orchestrated by the agency as an internal mole hunt. Here’s the outcome: Ethan + sole survivor = IMF mole. Refusing to turn himself in, Ethan blows up some fish and escapes into the Eastern European night. He is now on the lam and disavowed from the IMF, but not without a trick or two. He’ll need them all to draw the real traitor out into the open.
Anyone familiar with the ”Bourne” triology will note one similarity at least. From the point of view of the clandestine agencies that train and/or direct their operatives (the CIA in the ”M:I” films; unknown in the original ”M:I” television series), the above scenario quickly becomes a matter of We made you, Rogue Agent. Now how do we deal with you? From the perspective of the rogue agent however, it’s a matter of making things right under a ticking clock. Ghost Protocol more or less plays in the same ballpark. In this latest film, the entire kabootle of IMF agents find themselves disavowed after a massive explosion at the Kremlin incriminates Hunt and his new team. The wackjob behind the plot is Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a nuclear scientist who sees armageddon as the only viable way to long-term peace. Unfortunately for…well, the world, he has both a will and a way. America is his next target. Land of the free, home of the Whopper. It must be saved.
Thinking back to the release of the first M:I, I don’t recall being overly concerned whether the NOC list fell into the wrong hands. I didn’t much care whether Hendricks got his mitts on a confidential list of nuclear launch codes either. Insensitive? Perhaps, but I feel James Bond is partly to blame. After five decades of megalomania-inspired doomsday plots, SPECTRE and bald men stroking cats, I no longer watch these films to see if the crisis will be averted. I watch to see how. The sequences that work best in M:I and Ghost Protocol then are those that are most impossible, that succeed with milliseconds to spare, or both. One of the most memorable in M:I, and the entire series thus far, has Hunt stealing the NOC list from the CIA mainframe in Langley, Virginia. He’s suspended from cables like a black butterfly, in a chamber that is temperature, pressure and sound sensitive. We’re asked to be silent too, to prevent the alarm from tripping. This is cinema at its most interactive. Ghost Protocol has its own version, a nail-biting scene that places Hunt on the surface of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. I dare say that by experiencing this view in IMAX theaters (the scene was specially filmed in the high-resolution format) you are on that building.
Which says what? Added to the foreign locales, the self-destructing job offers and Lalo Schifrin’s armrest-drummable theme song, both ”Mission: Impossibles” contain enough cool tech and unexpected thrills to entertain. In the end though, I see M:I as having a better sense of its own design, of how it wants to lead an audience and at what speed. The film has a pace that evenly builds to a true climax and a plot that mirrors the path of that famously lit fuse, literally ending with an explosion inside the Channel Tunnel. Director Brad Bird (”The Incredibles”, ”Ratatouille”) delivers a better than average spy caper with Ghost Protocol; as a successful animator he is skilled at exciting the eye and occasionally rattling the nerves. But with just a fraction of the action, New Hollywood filmmaker DePalma actually achieves more, turning minor scenes into major screen moments largely with the use of film grammar (the aquarium restaurant scene, for example). He knows how the tools of his trade can push and pull an audience.
And our star? Fifteen years have passed since Cruise’s maiden stab at Hunt. He’s as relentless as ever in Ghost Protocol. Whether he’s chasing a villain through a sandstorm or being pursued by a Russian agent on suspicions of terrorism, this is a character whose tenacity makes the action sequences even more watchable. Nevermind that after four films he’s still essentially unknowable. Mission: Impossible creator Bruce Geller’s intent was always to keep character development to a minimum, to focus on the missions and the skills needed to carry them out. Even so, Ethan Hunt has lost something since his first outing, his sense of humor maybe. Granted, those shoes have been more than filled by Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), the IMF technician promoted to field agent in this latest installment, but there’s something to be said for experiencing a wider spectrum of emotions within our action hero, not the sidekicks. We did in the first film. Even under the pressure of the clock, Hunt could be playful and charming, as in his interactions with the coquettish arms dealer, Max (Vanessa Redgrave). But now he plays the spy game with all the enthusiasm of a jaded vacuum cleaner salesman; desperate for a win and seemingly tired of the same old bullsh*t, he mostly grimaces while the younger kids try to steal the show.
And the “winner” is: Mission: Impossible