Sunday, December 18, 2011


Brad Bird, the remarkable animation director behind such freshly minted classics of the form as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille has completed his first live action film, which happens to be nothing less than a massive action-thriller and a new entry in an established franchise. Debuting with the fourth in the Mission: Impossible series is not indicative of a lack of courage. But the risk paid off.  Perhaps not since Looney Tunes animator Frank Tashlin switched effortlessly to cartoony Technicolor farces in the 1950s has an animator so successfully ported over his skills with imagery into a live action setting. With Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Bird removes all doubt that he’s at the top of his game as one of modern cinema’s finest pop filmmakers, a genre expert adept at crowd pleasing with confident, energetic, hugely satisfying features.

The Mission: Impossible series is Hollywood’s most successful accidental experiment in auteurism. Each film has been given over to a different director, each allowed to put his own stamp on the material. Way back in 1996, Brian De Palma got to introduce us to Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt of the Impossible Missions Force, a plucky agent who will pull together with his team to execute complicated plans, defeat the bad guys, and save the MacGuffins. That film, a thriller loaded with plenty of action and plenty of backstabbing (at the very least double- and triple-crosses) indulged De Palma’s love of long takes and intricate visual playfulness. It was a complicated (convoluted?) story stylishly told.

For the sequel, which arrived in theaters four years later, Hong Kong action master John Woo spun out a tale of spy vs. spy as an overheated action buffet by way of a crypto-remake of Hitchcock’s Notorious. It’s no Face/Off (Woo’s greatest American effort by a mile) and a seriously compromised vision. It was reportedly edited down from a much longer director’s cut. But it has a paradoxically glossy and shaggy wild-eyed charm.

After another six years, the franchise fell to J.J. Abrams, a television director and writer making his feature film debut. He brought his always-be-closing, serialized thriller chops from shows like Alias and Lost to make M:I:III what was the best of the bunch to date. It’s a film with a great, gnashing villain in Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and a tight script that’s a constant jolt of cliffhangers and set pieces with a surprisingly emotional romantic undertow.

Now it’s been five years and Brad Bird has his shot to make the series his own. He actually hews pretty closely to the slick narrative style that Abrams’s used in his entry, but Bird jazzes it up with his sensational eye for action and his remarkable sense of visual space. The film gets off to a bit of a slow start (relatively speaking, of course) with two agents (Paula Patton and Simon Pegg) instigating a prisoner riot in order to break Ethan Hunt out of a Russian prison. “If you broke me out of there, things must be really bad out here,” he gravely tells them. Sure enough, the villain this time around is a crazed expert in nuclear war (Michael Nyqvist) who for some reason or another wants to spark just such a conflict between Russia and the United States. Like Salt, the best pure action film of last year and which also made great use of cinematographer Robert Elswit, this film gets a lot of mileage out of its cold-war revival scenario. It’s all so scarily plausible. Well, plausible enough, at least.

Through a series of unfortunate events, the three agents find themselves disavowed by the United States, blamed for a bombing they didn’t commit and trapped overseas without easy access to the Force’s equipment and assistance. They’re all on their own to stop this sinister threat by tracking down vital pieces of technology, intercepting black-market nuclear code swaps, and doing whatever they can to ensure nuclear war won’t break out on their watch. They’re not completely alone since they managed to find themselves joined by a State Department analyst (Jeremy Renner), but that still only brings their team up to four. Four against the world!

The film hurtles through Budapest, Moscow, Dubai, and Mumbai, staging sensational (and rewarding full-scale IMAX) action sequences every step of the way. I can hardly remember the last time an action movie had moments that had me feeling like I was clenching every muscle in my body. And I certainly can’t remember the last time a vertiginous moment, a near literal cliffhanger, turned my stomach in suspense so viscerally that I briefly worried I’d be grossly putting my popcorn back into the empty bag. From a dangerous climb up the side of the world’s tallest building to a car chase through a blinding sandstorm, and from a host of foot chases, shootouts, and hotel room brawls to a multi-part climactic sequence that’s a masterful cross-cut thrill, the film never stops to take a break. It sizzles with suspense every step of the way as the characters continually set up intricate plans only to see them fall apart in various ways, each time leaving them scrambling to save the world.

Brad Bird not only proves that he can handle live-action action, but he sets the bar high with sequences so delightfully imagined, impeccably staged, and flawlessly executed that my jaw would have dropped more often if I hadn’t found myself so breathless. It’s also shot through with a welcome kind of playfulness and one-liner energy that feels of a piece with the kind of tone Bird struck in The Incredibles. It’s thrilling, yes, but it’s also such a hugely enjoyable good time. This series has always been in nothing more than the set-piece delivery business. Here, there’s a kind of perfect marriage between characters’ minimalism and the elaborateness of the action. In that way, Bird’s approach is the perfect melding of the previous films’ greatest qualities. It’s the best action thriller of the year, a propulsive juggernaut of action and thrills that put a smile on my face and had my heart racing long after the credits ended.

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