The fourth Mission: Impossible picture is nonsense from beginning to end — and wonderful fun. The director is Brad Bird, of Ratatouille and The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, and there's no doubt now, in his live-action debut, that he's a filmmaker first and an animator second. Part 4, titled Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, is in a different league from its predecessors.
Not that the other MI films have been terrible. It's just the direction they took from the start was annoying. The TV series was deadly dull, but it had two big things going for it: an exciting eight-note motif by Lalo Schifrin that stirringly evoked the rapidly burning fuse in the opening credits; and the notion of a team of poker-faced professional good guys functioning as high-tech con artists, donning lifelike masks to impersonate their marks and coordinating their stings with clockwork precision.
When Tom Cruise decided to produce and star in the movie version, he kept Schifrin's theme and threw out the team. His agent Ethan Hunt always ended up the James Bond lone wolf going mano a mano against the latest supervillain. Directors Brian De Palma, John Woo and J.J. Abrams did what they could to make the films work, but it was Cruise's party — and Cruise's tiresome ego trip.
For whatever reason, Ghost Protocol shifts the focus back to the notion of teamwork. Writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec bring three other characters to the fore: Simon Pegg plays the chatterbox tech whiz Benji, Paula Patton is driven agent Jane Carter, and, most intriguingly, Jeremy Renner is the anxious policy analyst William Brandt, who finds himself onboard when his boss is assassinated and "ghost protocol" is invoked. That's when the agency — the IMF — is disavowed by the U.S. government and its agents become fugitives.
I won't bore you with plot synopsis except to say there's a madman who wants a nuclear war so Earth can start over, and he's very determined. But our heroes are more so. Their early robbery of the Kremlin turns out to be their easiest operation: It is called Mission: Impossible, not Mission: Very, Very Hard. Next, Ethan has to scale the tallest building in the world in Dubai, with a dust storm approaching, the mask-making machine malfunctioning, and two sets of deadly terrorists to deceive on two different floors.
Bird and his screenwriters have a great comic conceit. First they have us marveling at the precision and the ingenuity of the high-tech devices, which are better than James Bond's, and then they have us laughing and/or crying out when something breaks down and the team has to improvise madly.
I don't know why Cruise throws the ball so much to Renner — it's not characteristic. But he's very likable as the younger man's coach, and Renner's 'What am I doing here?' vibe makes for funny scenes. For instance, he can't bring himself to trust Benji's levitating suit. And who could, really?
The structure of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol owes something to Inception, and at the risk of outraging the fanboys, I think Brad Bird and editor Paul Hirsch do a better, more elegant job of juggling multiple climaxes. The finale, in an automated parking garage in Mumbai — yes they go from Dubai to Mumbai — is as intricate as the rising and falling elevator arcade game Donkey Kong, and it's helped, as is everything else, by composer Michael Giacchino, who does more variations on Schifrin's theme than Beethoven did on Diabelli's.
I should note the film opens this week on IMAX screens, next week on regular ones, and it's worth a drive and a surcharge for IMAX. The long traveling shot over desert dunes toward that ridiculous vertical metropolis Dubai is breathtaking, and so are the views later on from above Cruise's head looking 130 stories down. You'll feel your fight-or-flight instincts kicking in, but don't worry: Brad Bird will catch you.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.