Bright Lights Film Journal

The Bird Identity: Brad Bird’s <em>Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol</em>

“Some of the most refreshing aspects of Ghost Protocol are the ways in which it defies so many of the accepted conventions of modern action movies, most of which can probably be attributed to Bird’s economic and meticulous mise en scène.”

The Mission: Impossible series relies more or less as heavily on explosions and star power as any other massive Hollywood action franchise, but one thing that separates it from the likes of Die Hard, James Bond, the Bourne films, and The Terminator is how each installment serves as a sort of auteurist statement for a new director. The stylistic imprints left by Brian De Palma, John Woo, J. J. Abrams, and now Brad Bird are so distinct that all four films would work just about as well as unrelated individual remakes of the TV show as they do as sequels and prequels to one another. This has left the series as a whole something of an incoherent mess, but one of its unexpected delights is seeing how Brad Bird, a veteran animator working in live action for the first time, emerges as the most invigorating and inventive of the bunch, even if his predecessors have more robust pedigrees in underworld thrillers and spy movies (Bird’s previous features are The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille). Despite an awkwardly stylized and sheepishly unnumbered title that smacks of focus groups, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol is one of the few big Hollywood action flicks in recent years with a genuine sense of levity and a lively personality.

The original TV show was as formulaic as they come, and Ghost Protocol adheres more closely to its structure and appeal than any of the other films. The on-again, off-again relationship between agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and an elite CIA black ops group called the Impossible Missions Force is largely foregone this time around as he finds a comfortable niche as an eccentric but dependable team leader. This steers the film closer to the show’s original emphasis on ensemble coordination over individual stardom than the first three, all of which qualify as “Tom Cruise movies.” Formerly a smug lone wolf who brought on mercenaries for his missions only as needed, Hunt is now less of a star character and more of a ringleader of the uninspired but entertaining pick-and-mix of spy movie types that makes up the film’s core cast: a tough-as-nails female agent (Paula Patton), who fortunately never devolves into a femme fatale or action girl; a comic relief tech geek (Simon Pegg, playing his standard affable dweeb); and a reluctant new guy (Jeremy Renner) who serves as the straight man to others’ antics. Hunt’s wife from Mission: Impossible III (Michelle Monaghan) is regrettably disposed of with an overly convenient plot device that borders on misogynistic in how it unshackles the male lead from the constraints of marriage, but, like most of the film’s many contrivances (including the one-dimensional mad scientist villain, played by an appropriately cast but underwhelming Michael Nyqvist), it’s little more than a shrewd mechanism for facilitating the methodical action.

Properly speaking, Mission: Impossible was never truly in the spy genre; its appeal lay in the Rube Goldberg heists that the agents performed, with stories of international espionage functioning as mere MacGuffins. The simple pleasure of watching an intricate heist being executed with grace, creativity, and humor is as different from the anxious tension of a genuine spy thriller as the Three Stooges are from George Bernard Shaw. The first three films missed the mark by focusing on more traditional spy thriller fodder. De Palma’s Mission: Impossible was bogged down by the usual trappings of a De Palma thriller: a confusing and ultimately superficial web of intrigue and betrayal, fetishization of corruption, an uneasy synthesis of European art cinema and American B-movie schlock, and an approach to action and violence so rigidly stylized that it’s almost mathematical. It also desecrated the original show’s likeable and dutiful (if two-dimensional) protagonist by inexplicably turning him into a villainous traitor, blanketing the film’s action sequences — most of which are homages to (i.e., ripoffs of) Dassin, Hitchcock, and Melville films — with a plot of betrayal and revenge completely out of sync with the TV show’s lighthearted team camaraderie. Mission: Impossible II was similarly hampered by John Woo’s overbearing sense of cool, a barrage of sunglasses, motorcycles, sports cars, semi-automatic pistols, and slow motion seemingly focused on turning the film into a demo reel for MGM to let Woo direct a Bond film. It came complete with a half-baked world domination story, car chases on winding European hillsides, and Thandie Newton as a makeshift Bond girl who gets to fuck Ethan Hunt when he’s done saving the world. Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III was praised for having a memorable and frightening villain (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but the show never really had imposing villains; most of them were little more than an arbitrary target used to contextualize the heist. A terrifying villain who puts the hero through a personal hell, pushing him to his personal breaking point and challenging his commitment to his career, is more appropriate for Batman or tough guys with the initials J. B. (James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer, etc.). Murky lighting and distracting handheld camerawork also spoke more to the cynicism of post-9/11 TV shows like 24 and Abrams’s own Alias than the mainly innocent fun of Mission: Impossible.

Ghost Protocol, on the other hand, focuses on the heists and little else. A compromising but taut script by TV writer-producers André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum uses a threadbare plot that’s two parts The Italian Job and one part Dr. Strangelove to string together three roughly self-contained, TV-length episodes, which, like the TV show, contain one heist each. Except for a pre-credits prison break sequence and a brief denouement in Seattle, the film consists almost entirely of these three heists, set in Moscow, Dubai, and Mumbai, all of which go haywire and rapidly disintegrate into chase sequences before transitioning into the next one. What keeps this from getting stale is how ingeniously the formula is switched around from one city to another. Hunt, for instance, is central to all three heists, but his exact role is radically different in each; he spends most of the first heist wearing a fake mustache and impersonating a Russian general, but later he does the sweaty grunt work, climbing around the outside of a skyscraper and getting in fistfights. The heists themselves are also some of the most creative in recent years and are made all the more tense by how the team is constantly forced to improvise and make insane gambles due to a lack of government support following some political brouhaha. This throws a lot of curveballs their way, but the most memorable ones involve their last few pieces of super-high-tech spy gear breaking down at the exact wrong moment (my personal favorite is when the machine that makes their hyper-realistic masks burns out, doing away with a laughable recurring plot device that plagued the first three films). The story is also riddled with cheesy one-liners, total implausibilities, and cliché drama, but Bird handles it with a subtle irony worthy of Douglas Sirk, so that it never feels like it takes itself too seriously or has succumbed to self-parody.

In many ways, the story is even more secondary to the set-pieces and visuals than in Bird’s previous action extravaganza, The Incredibles, a flamboyant cartoon with a surprisingly weak story for a Pixar film but which schooled the entire Hollywood system in how to properly orchestrate a superhero movie. However, where that film was bursting at the seams with style and energy, Ghost Protocol is more restrained, almost minimalistic in the tradition of Chuck Jones shorts. There’s no shortage of exoticism regarding how the film treats its foreign locales, but all three main cities are conceived primarily as abstract spaces of a few basic and conflicting elements that the characters have to deal with in mind-boggling ways. Moscow, for all the ushankas and mustaches, is essentially a network of narrow corridors, tunnels, and side streets intersecting in open, crowded areas, all in a cloak of drab gray-browns with splotches of red. Mumbai is a glitzy media technopolis of vertical tubes and the enclosed bubbles of mansions and sports cars surrounded by noisy crowds and nighttime neon. Most impressive is Dubai, which is reduced to two opposing extremes: the ancient, dirty, flat width of the desert and the ultra-modern, sterile, jutting height of the Burj Khalifa. In the film’s two most intense and satisfying action scenes, Hunt must conquer both of these in environments so stripped of external concerns that they’re practically mythic. Using gadgets that barely work, Hunt’s climb up the side of the skyscraper turns into a primal struggle against gravity and the smoothness of glass, and his foot chase across the city during a sandstorm hinges on Hunt’s human limitations in the face of violent weather and blindness.

This is not to say that Ghost Protocol is an overly theoretical work, or that Bird is engaged in any sort of mythologization of the spy genre. It’s telling that many of the film’s visual referents are comic: Hunt’s parking garage shenanigans have more than a little in common with Jackie Chan (who, in turn, has more than a little in common with Buster Keaton), the most obvious inspiration for the Burj Khalifa climb seems to be Safety Last!, and the use of crab shacks, coffee houses, and foggy piers to represent Seattle calls to mind how Bugs Bunny would suddenly appear via transcontinental rabbit tunnel in the midst of pyramids, the Sphinx, and a droopy camel. If Hunt’s previous appearances were as a knockoff Bond or Bourne, then Bird’s interpretation of him is as some combination of Race Bannon and Wile E. Coyote. This is Bird’s first film that’s a complete non-comedy, since animation was unfairly pigeonholed into the comedy section in this country nearly a century ago, but the setup-punchline structure and choreographed anarchy of cartoon comedy are built into every scene. In this sense, Bird is something of a twenty-first-century Frank Tashlin, another filmmaker who cut his teeth in Warner Bros.’ animation department, except that while Tashlin extended his Looney Tunes sensibilities to live action comedy, Bird uses them for thrills instead of laughs. Some of the most refreshing aspects of Ghost Protocol are the ways in which it defies so many of the accepted conventions of modern action movies, most of which can probably be attributed to Bird’s economic and meticulous mise en scène (though Paul Hirsch’s tight editing and Robert Elswit’s photography can’t be ignored). The camera never shakes, the lighting is never grim or muddled, and I can’t recall a single instance of slow-motion. The images have the vibrant, crisp colors and clarity of line of Golden Age superhero comics. Light, shape, and space are all clearly delineated so that we are always aware of how a given set of physical objects and distances relate to one another, and how those relationships are constantly in flux. The jumbled, confusing mess of handheld camerawork and machine-gun editing found in other recent spy thrillers, like Steven Soderbergh’s sloppy and plodding Haywire, are nowhere to be seen. Each shot is a testament to an artist accustomed to creating all his visual elements from scratch. No detail is taken for granted, and both the film and the audience are given enough room to breathe and enjoy the ride.