14. December 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird’s fast-paced, suspenseful, and lightly comic return to the Mission: Impossible series, has special relevance for Prague residents (and visitors): it was partially shot in the Czech capital, with Prague doubling for Moscow. Those with careful eyes will be able to spot local backdrops; the streets of Karlín are extensively used, and Prague Castle fills in for the Kremlin. The shooting location was a surprise for producer-star Tom Cruise, who had so much trouble with local bureaucracy (and price gouging for location shooting) when filming the first Mission: Impossible here in 1995 that (rumor says) he vowed not to return. That's not so, but he may have had his revenge on the city anyway: while Prague looked gorgeous in the original film (which included a memorable sequence on and around the Charles Bridge – no Hollywood production since has used the city as effectively), it now looks positively drab subbing for the Russian capital. Ghost Protocol begins with IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) confined to a Russian prison, bouncing a rock off the wall in homage to Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. He’s busted out by fellow agents Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, returning from the third film) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and given a new assignment: to infiltrate the Kremlin and gather intel on Kurt Hendricks (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Michael Nyqvist), a crazed Russian extremist who is obtaining materials to launch a nuclear device. But things go horribly wrong: Hunt is branded a terrorist, and “Ghost Protocol” – an immediate shutdown of the entire IMF – is enacted. Since Hunt and his team – which now includes “analyst” William Brandt (The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner) – are alone in their knowledge of Hendricks’ threat, they decide to go it alone in order to put an end to his plans. First stop: the tallest building in the world, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, where an associate of Hendricks is about to purchase nuclear launch codes. Of course, Hunt has to get up to the 130th floor from the outside, using only a pair of malfunctioning adhesive gloves. Director Bird – who previously worked in animation, directing The Incredibles & Ratatouille for Pixar – has a real knack for shooting action: scenes inside the Kremlin, atop the Burj Khalifa, and a climatic duel in a car park (which recalls a similar scene in Minority Report) are wonderfully fluid & suspenseful, choreographed and edited with refined skill. The Dubai-set scenes – which include a chase in a sandstorm – are particularly well-executed, and are the 30-minute height of Ghost Protocol. Bird never rushes things, uses silence and pauses effectively, and comes closer than either of the previous Mission: Impossible sequels to matching Brian De Palma’s memorable suspense set pieces in the original. Despite a runtime of 130+ minutes, this one seems to fly by. But Bird has a weaker grip on overall tone; it’s feels like an easy out to call the director’s first live action film too cartoonish, but that’s exactly how I was feeling during the duration. There’s just no real sense of danger, no edge, no bite. It’s all a show, and the characters seem to be taking it far less seriously than they should be. In the 1996 film, we could feel Cruise’s intensity seething out of Hunt (“Kittridge, you've never seen me very upset”); here, he’s loose and laid-back and just having a good time (to be fair, there’s zero continuity with the Hunt character through any of these films). I’m in the minority, but I’ve always thought De Palma’s original film was a modern action classic – it’s taut, suspenseful, inventively staged, and endlessly rewatchable, with a complex plot that rewards repeat viewings. John Woo’s M:I 2 is best forgotten, and J.J. Abrams’ M:I 3 was an improvement, but still underwhelming. Ghost Protocol bests the two sequels, but still doesn’t stack up against the first film. It does, however, come closest to approximating the feel of the original 1960s TV series. It's a fun and breezy ride, and a perfect summer blockbuster just in time for Christmas.