With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.
Like J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird didn't have any experience with big Hollywood action movies when he took over the Mission: Impossible franchise with the fourth installment, Ghost Protocol. Abrams had at least directed some action in episodes of his TV series Alias and Lost, but Bird had never even worked on a live-action film before taking on Ghost Protocol. His previous three features (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) were all animated, and while The Incredibles does feature plenty of action, it's all done via computer animation. Of course, the scale of the stunts in the Mission: Impossible series requires the use of CGI, but one of the series' trademarks is how much is done via practical stunts (and specifically by star Tom Cruise himself). Bird proves himself remarkably adept at helming a massive production like this, and he turns in the best series installment since the first one (and possibly the best overall).
The plot raises the stakes as high as they've ever been, with global nuclear war eventually being averted with literally seconds to spare, although there still isn't much weight to the supposed danger. As usual, the plot functions mainly as a framework for the crazy set pieces, which in this movie include a fun prison break soundtracked to Dean Martin, a climactic battle in an automated car park between Cruise's Ethan Hunt and the villain played by Michael Nyqvist, and of course the amazing sequence featuring Ethan hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, easily the best stunt in the series and probably one of the greatest stunts of all time. Like Brian De Palma, Bird is great at creating suspense within these action sequences, and the movie overall is paced very well, even as it runs past two hours (it's the longest movie in the series).
Bird and screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec mostly discard the character development from the previous movie, writing out Ethan's nurse wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan, reduced to a wordless cameo) and putting Ethan firmly back in the field. They do make the dissolution of Ethan's marriage into a plot point, though, although the emotional impact from that mainly falls on new characters William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton). The team dynamics in this movie are very effective, with Brandt and Carter joining returning character Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), upgraded from a brief appearance in the third movie, as Ethan's colleagues. Because the plot involves the entire IMF being disbanded and disavowed, the characters have a strong bond, and they feel more like people who care about each other and work well together than the teams in the past movies. (Ving Rhames' Luther Stickell, Ethan's one constant ally, shows up only for a cameo appearance at the end.)
After the comparatively straightforward plots of the second and third movies, this one gets a little convoluted, but even when the particulars aren't entirely obvious, the need for Ethan and his team to save the world and clear their names definitely is (also like the first movie, this one features Ethan on the run after being framed for the villain's terrorist act). At this point, the filmmakers know exactly what audiences look for from the series, and Bird delivers it, combining the jaw-dropping action with some witty banter and just enough emotional moments to give the characters a bit of depth. The cast, both new and returning, is uniformly strong, the cinematography by Robert Elswit is dynamic and bold, and composer Michael Giacchino comes up with some great variations on the Mission: Impossible theme song. Like those variations, Ghost Protocol is a fresh gloss on a now-familiar refrain.