Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol

The standard formula for an action movie generally begins with an introduction in which most of the main characters are revealed and we get to see some of the prowess of our protagonists. Then there is a first act where we see more skill, but there is generally a failure, not usually due to the actions of our protagonists. The second act is either an attempt to fix the failure or the first step in a plan to fix it, usually with mixed success so that there can be a third act. The third act is usually the hardest, but against the worst odds, the protagonists usually succeed at the last possible moment. There follows a sort of coda where everything winds down, and there is some sort of reveal—a secret given or a plot twist revealed. Within this framework, the characters are developed as we go along, and the twist in the coda generally has to do with something about the characters that we thought we knew. There's also a formula for the cast—four members of the team are usually best, with the biased veteran, the relative newbie, the one with issues, and the enigma. Actually, usually everyone has some sort of issue that comes into play during the fulfilling of the story, but someone usually has issues that are obvious, like just having lost a loved one in some way that factors into the story being told.

Perhaps it's cynical to reduce the plot down to this kind of formula, but we know the formulas of the genres and we rely on them. And when the formula is done well with some surprises, we think that we've partaken in a good but not great story, and we say "That was fun." Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol is exactly that: it's fun. It follows this formula down to the finest detail, surprising the audience not so much with plot twists but humor. While Tom Cruise returns as the gruff Ethan Hunt, not growing the character at all, the real heart of this movie turns out to be Simon Pegg's Benji, a gearhead who has finally gotten permission to do fieldwork. His wide-eyed wonder at the tasks he is asked to perform reflects what the audience should be feeling, the gee whiz of spy movies and all their gadgetry. He is not cynical but earnest in his belief in his equipment, even as it fails repeatedly, and the rest of the cast generally only surfs along in his emotional wake. Of course, Paula Patton's Jane is the one with issues, having just lost her boyfriend to an assassin that the IMF team must use in its mission, so she is not much for levity. But there is some humor in her attempted seduction of an Indian media magnate, when Jane's pain keeps bubbling up to the surface of the seductress role, and fortunately the magnate seems to like a little hurt in his amorous connections. This leaves Jeremy Renner as Brandt, the enigma, an analyst who knows far more than he reveals.

Ghost Protocol lays this likable group on one of the most used plots in spy movies—stolen Russian nuclear codes that a madman named Cobalt plans to use to start World War III. The twist here lays in Cobalt's rationale: his goal is to hasten the evolution of humans with a man-made extinction event. And in his theft of the device capable of using the launch codes, he is able to pin the theft on IMF and Ethan Hunt's team, making them also responsible for the collateral damage of what remains of the Kremlin after a series of explosions hides his escape. So Hunt's team has been disavowed (again, I think) and the IMF disbanded to mollify the angry Russians. Therefore they are left to their own devices (literally) as they both escape capture by the Russians and pursue Cobalt.

While Ghost Protocol is predictable in its broad strokes, it is the small strokes that keep it from being too repetitious, and the credit for this lies mostly at the feet of Brad Bird. Given his pedigree, working first on the Simpsons before directing The Iron Giant and then going on to join Pixar for The Incredibles and Ratatouille, it's seems right that humor, irony, and some irreverence will creep into the storytelling, enlivening it somewhat. Again, most of the humor circulates around Benji and his gadgets, but it is pervasive. For example, as the team plots an escapade inside the Burj Dubai, one of the tallest buildings in the world, they look out the window to see an approaching sandstorm. Amazed and appalled, they decide that it's too far away to come into play with their mission, but the audience just chuckles, knowing full well that it will somehow play a part. Similarly, when Benji and Brandt are discussing the technical aspects of another caper, Brandt can't wrap his head around Benji's belief in his gadgets, especially given their record in the rest of the movie. Benji's assurances often fall a little short, but Brandt allows himself to be convinced, even though the audience knows better. And when the gadgets do fail, the audience is given a feeling of smugness in their own surety even while Brandt dangles, literally, in mid-air. Perhaps the loudest guffaw comes from the final circumstances of the nuclear missile rushing down on an unsuspecting San Francisco; in that single scene, Bird pushes credulity further than it has been in the movie and winks at the audience, enjoying the ride nearly as much as us.

All that said, it should be clear that Ghost Protocol is not brilliant by any stretch; I'm sure there are more important and better crafted movies available. But Ghost Protocol is not ashamed of what it is, a diverting two-hour romp with humor that raises it a little above the standard action movie fare. And for us, in this week between holidays, that made it perfect for an outing with friends.

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