Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol–Brad Bird’s Fourth Chapter, Starring Cruise

Brad Bird, best known for his animation work (“The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille”), makes a smooth transition to features with his debut as live-action director in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” the fourth and most entertaining segment in the blockbuster series.

Fast moving, engaging (especially in the first hour), and wonderfully kinetic in its action sequences,” “Ghost Protocol” may be the best installment of the series, which began 15 years ago as a star vehicle for Tom Cruise, produced by him and J.J. Abrams (who helmed the third installment).

It’s been five years since the last chapter, arguably the weakest in the franchise, which underperformed at the box-office in the US and overseas (total gross is about $400 million per Hollywood Reporter).  Thus, the producers felt pressures to improve on the old concept, add new characters and exotic locales, and most important of all, up the ante in the action department, not a minor feat considering that the second film was directed by maestro John Woo.

To a large extent, they have succeeded, even if the narrative is still too formulaic and too silly to generate genuine excitement, and some of the set-pieces repetitive in style, even as they get bigger and bigger in scope and effects.  (I am partial to the first film, directed by Brian De Palma in 1996), which was just as formulaic but smoother visually and dazzlingly stylish, bearing its helmer’s signature).

Tom Cruise, who has floundered in all of his recent pictures (“Knight and Day” anyone? is in top form here, physically if not verbally, as he returns to his starring role, Ethan Hunt, immersing himself completely in the physicality required of him.  For a good deal of the picture, he runs and runs, and almost falls from incredible heights.  For years there have been rumors that Cruise’s role would be diminished in “Ghost Protocol”; some even predicted that it would be his last appearance in the series.

The decision to cast Jeremy Renner (two-time Oscar nominee, and in consecutive years)) in a co-starring part is a smart one, not only because Renner is a terrific actor, but also because his part enriches the proceedings of a tale that lost some of its narrative momentum in the last two chapters.

Globe-trotting, this frills and thrills actioner benefits from a wonderful international cast, which includes Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov, Josh Holloway, Anil Kapoor and Léa Seydoux. Problem is they are not given much to say–or to do.

The plot, penned by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, is based on a workable, if utterly simplistic, idea, the transformation of Ethan from a sole player, truly a lone wolf, to a genuine leader, one who commands and orchestrates the actions of a whole team of pros.

When the tale begins, IMF operative Ethan Hunt is blamed for the terrorist bombing of the Kremlin.   He is disavowed along with other members of the agency, when the President initiates the dreaded “Ghost Protocol.”  Though left with no resources and no real backup, Ethan becomes obsessed with clearing his agency’s name, and also prevent another attack.   Ethan embarks on this double mission with a team of fellow IMF fugitives whose appearances may not reveal their true identities or personal motives for helping him.

In the previous three movies, Ethan relied on himself, but in “Ghost Protocol,” he needs to learn how to rely on the help of others.  Having been deceived and betrayed by members and the organization itself, collaboration is at first alien to him. It’s a great challenge—and totally new game for him.  But it’s no so much a matter of choice.  Ethan is forced to trust and depend on people whom he hardly knows.

For this film, Appelbaum and Nemec have created a strong female agent, who’s as fierce as the men—about time, you might say.  She is the experienced field agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton, beautiful), perceived by many as “a badass,” and driven, as it turns out, by revenge, and a force to contend with.

Returning from the previous chapter is the team’s technical wizard, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who has now been promoted to a field agent.  A computer guy who knows a lot about technology, he is pulled out of his desk job and thrown into the dangerous field work.  Pegg succeeds in bringing wit and humor to his character, which is a new element in a franchise known for its intense and dark mood.

Appearances deceive.  At first, agent Brandt seems more of a tight-wound desk jockey, “a suit” (always wearing a blue shirt).  But later on, he gets to reveal his various skills, both physical and cerebral; he’s smart as a whip.   Like some of the other members, initially, Brandt doesn’t want to be part of the team, but circumstances force him to join the group.  Predictably, the two agents differ, argue, and square off, which makes the plot more interesting.

In a recent interview, Bird has described the crew as consisting of members who represent “four different rhythms, voices and tempos that synchronized well onscreen.”   Indeed, the other members of the international cast are characters (and actors) from Russia, India, Sweden and France.

While Cruise does some striking stunts and commands by sheer physical presence, acting-wise the movie belongs to Renner, who admittedly has a more interesting part to play.  But he is also a more grounded, less mannered actor than Cruise, which may be the reason why he was cast in the first place, as director Bird noted: “When you’re doing a film that is more of popcorn, crazy action movie, you have to find reality in some unreal situations and make them real. Jeremy’s one of the few people I can think of who can do that.”

Entertaining as it is, “Mission Impossible 4” is still a popcorn flick, borderline mindless par excellence.  Too bad that the actioner runs out of narrative steam in the last reel and overextends its welcome by at least 15 minutes (Running time is two hours and 12 minutes).

Who could have predicted twenty or fifteen years ago that Tom Cruise, the greatest American movie star, would be reduced in his late 40s to merely an action actor, sort of a kinetic machine.  Have major Hollywood directors and writers, who had worked with him in the past (Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma, Oliver Stone) given up on him as a dramatic or comedic presence?  That said, I have to admit that watching him at an IMAX theater, scale the world’s highest building–Burj Khalifa in Dubai–was quite a thrilling site.