Monday, January 9, 2012

Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol

Brad Bird, 2011 -- IMAX

Though I don't really have any affinity for the Mission Impossible series or Tom Cruise, I've been an admirer of director Brad Bird's animated efforts for years (from Family Dog, to Iron Giant, to the Incredibles), so I was quite keen to see what he did with a big budget and live cast.  As well, the supporting cast on the film includes two actors in Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner who have made tv programs (Spaced, the Unusuals) which have given them a heavy cache of goodwill credit in my books.  So there was a draw for me for MI4, but the biggest draw for me was the 5 minutes of The Dark Knight Rises that were to precede the film in select IMAX theatres in North America.

It's telling that for all the wow and spectacle of MI4, of which there was plenty, those 5 minutes of TDKR were the most memorable and most impressive.  But this isn't a review of 5 minutes of the latest installment of Christopher Nolan's incredible Batman franchies, but for the latest Tom Cruise actioneer.

MI4 is, to be blunt, empty calories. The story is threadbare and the characters are husks.  Everything in the film exists to serve the numerous action set pieces.  The movie is pretty close to wall-to-wall with action -- fights, chases, all kinds of new timey derring-do -- in its 2+ hour running time, with little to no motivation for the good guys or the bad guys, aside from well trod "we're the good guys" and "I'll save the world by destroying it" respectively.  Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt, was never all that fleshed out to begin with, but here there's literally nothing to the character beyond Cruise's natural charm, physical agility, and star power to make him compelling.  But the fact of the matter is, Cruise's boundless charm and almost ageless appearance and physique continue to carry him.  He's perhaps not a greatest actor, but he does have tremendous presence and a likeability that only the seriously jaded can ignore.  Since there's next to no emotional core to Ethan Hunt, it really is just a vacant role for the Cruise charisma to shine through.

Equally the supporting cast is given little to work with in their characters so they must rely upon their natural abilities as actors and performers to serve the role.  Simon Pegg is affable and funny as a somewhat overwhelmed tech expert, Jeremy Renner seems at ease playing remorseful, secretive and skilled, while Paula Patton plays against her natural beauty almost too much and is narrowly convincing as a vengeful and ass-kicking tough gal, though her sequence with Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor plays off that juxtaposition well.

Brad Bird's live-action debut is a seamless transition from his animation career, as he negotiates his 145 million dollar budget with an assured lens, and there are moments where his directorial style come through loudly (most prominently the chase sequence in the sand storm comes to mind where Cruise chases the camera rather than filming from behind, much like the Dash running sequence in the Incredibles).  Bird builds his action sequences in layers, compounding them, escalating them in an almost cartoonish manner.  At times it's closer to being comedic than dramatic or intense, but in any respect it's really entertaining.  At the same time he frequently seeds in some natural elements to keep it grounded, the fighting taking an actual toll on those involved, for instance, rather than just being complete superheroes.  Some of the actions the characters perform seem unrealistic or super-sciencey, but there always seems to be a consequence or a bit of human flaw built in, which actors convey well.

Bird also has a photographers eye, and has taken every opportunity to capture the landscapes and architecture he's afforded the opportunity to play in, particularly the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building in Dubai, something, as David noted, can only be properly shot in IMAX.  

As with any empty calories, MI4 tastes great, certainly satisfy a craving for action, but also doesn't leave much of a lasting impression.  For all the spectacle it presents, it's lacking in anything resembling a connection with the characters or engaging story and thus it has next to no resonance.  I can't really see repeated viewings being desired, certainly not required.