If you take nothing else from this review, take this: see Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol on a real, giant IMAX screen. Not a LieMAX but an actual enormous, engulfing screen. This film's IMAX sequences are magnificent, and the immersion and depth of field achieved in the IMAX scenes shames even the best 3D presentation I have seen.
You should see MI: Ghost Protocol, by the way. It's a legitimately great action film, a thrilling and fun bit of exquisitely crafted escapism. It might be the best in the series, and it's without a doubt the best since the first film. It's light on its feet and refuses to be dour - but it doesn't sacrifice stakes or tension in the process.
The film opens some years after the last movie; Ethan Hunt's wife is apparently dead and he's rotting in a Russian prison after seeking unsanctioned revenge on her killers. On the outside the shit is about to hit the fan globally - an Impossible Mission Force agent (played by Lost's Josh Holloway) is killed after swiping Russian nuke information, and that info has passed into the hands of an international terrorist named Cobalt. His diabolical plan is to spark a nuclear war, since he thinks humanity needs the stimulus of holocaust to jump to the next level.
New IMF agent Jane (Paula Patton) and Simon Pegg's returning agent Benji -now advanced to field status - break Ethan out of jail so they can infiltrate the Kremlin to get information about Cobalt. But while the team is sneaking around the center of the Russian government, a bomb is detonated. Cobalt frames the IMF for the destruction and the entire agency is shut down; Ethan and friends - now joined by an intelligence analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner) - are on their own and are the only thing standing between Cobalt and global thermonuclear war.
Ghost Protocol wisely gets rid of the tedious double agent plots of the last few films* and goes fairly straight ahead - Cobalt has an evil plan and our ragtag band of IMF agents must stop him. The action hops from Moscow to Abu Dhabi to Mumbai, and this film feels so much larger and grander than the frankly TV movie scale of MI3. This is a truly big screen adventure.
Tom Cruise is in rare form here; Ethan is playful and human this time. There's actually a lot of humor in MI4, but it's played well so that it doesn't make the whole film silly. It's a tough tone for a movie like this to pull off, but MI4 manages to straddle the line between self-serious gadget adventure and humorous, character-driven heist movie.
The rest of the cast is also strong; nobody's doing career best work here, but they're all creating characters with enough depth and humanity to make you care about them. Renner's analyst has a dark secret, and while you don't really CARE about it - it's far too contrived to get emotionally involved in - you don't mind the scenes where the movie tries to care about it. These characters are fun to be around, and so you're happy to hang out with them in between action scenes.
And the action scenes are spectacular. Director Brad Bird, making the leap from animation to live action, doesn't show a real particular style besides solid, cleanly shot and edited action scenes. He's not leaning on shaky cam or quick cuts or crazy effects to do the action; in many ways MI4 is incredibly old fashioned in how it approaches the set pieces, with often longer takes and steady camerawork. This shit is cool, the movie says, so we want to make sure you can see it.
The much hyped scene where Cruise climbs the exterior of the Burj Dubai Tower - the world's tallest building - lives up to the hype, especially in vertigo-inducing IMAX. The sequence is wonderfully staged as a series of escalating problems - the scene tells a story and isn't just a series of senses-pummelling moments. It's kind of sad that this is so rare in modern action filmmaking that I feel the need to praise it effusively. But Bird truly nails the classical feel of great action filmmaking.
Beyond those scenes he's a bit of a journeyman director. I imagine his greatest contribution was the delicate handling of the tone; visually he's made a widescreen movie but a fairly unremarkable one at that (although again, Bird is approaching the whole film classically, which means MI4 isn't a series of too-tight close-ups, so it's unremarkable in the sense of THIS IS WHAT MOVIES SHOULD LOOK LIKE).
There are logical gaps in MI4, and there are elements of the plot that serve only as mechanisms to get to the next action scene, but the movie is paced so well and is so much fun that it's easy to miss them. You may walk out and begin picking some logic apart, but what's important is that everything holds together in the moment. It's a movie where you're happy to come along for the thrilling ride, and the film never condescends to you or assumes you're stupid. It does, however, occasionally smile at you warmly and say 'Don't worry about that!'
This entry also has an abundance of just slightly next generation gadgets; more than once I found myself grinning wide at the audacious fun the movie has with the gadgets. Everything feels rooted in understandable tech, just taken to the next level. Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol is set in a world where Steve Jobs ended up working for the intelligence community. I haven't enjoyed gadgets in a movie this much since some of the seminal early Bond films.
Action movies should be fun, not overly complicated, po-faced exercises in tedium. MI4 is fun in a way that feels fresh to this series, and the movie marks a whole new era for the franchise. I want to see this entire team return in three years, having more adventures, being one part James Bond and one Ocean's 11. I was never a fan of the Mission: Impossible movies, but Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol has made a believer out of me.
* although I suspect that there was once a turncoat storyline in the film, one which got cut during editing. Once the film is released I may write about this, if there's interest.