erik lundegaard

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
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Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS THAT WILL SELF-DESTRUCT IN FIVE SECONDS. GOOD LUCK, READER.

Turns out super agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) likes to do the same thing I like to do after a hard day’s work: hang out at the pier in downtown Seattle and drink a beer or two with friends. Of course he’s just eliminated a few bad guys to maybe save the entire planet while I’ve just eliminated a few bad words to maybe save an article, but we’ve all got our jobs, right? Besides, he’s not really hanging out in downtown Seattle; he’s in Vancouver, B.C., which has played the role of Seattle more often than Tom Cruise has played Ethan Hunt. More poorly, too. Water taxis my ass.

This is the fourth installment of the “M:I” series, based upon the 1960s TV series with the kick-ass theme music, and they’ve all been pretty good. Each has had its stellar director: 1) Brian De Palma, 2) John Woo, 3) J.J. Abrams, and now 4) Brad Bird. Each has had its incredible stunt. And each has been forgettable.

There’s a mission. Does it go awry? Is Ethan accused? There’s a chase scene on foot through a crowded third-world market. There’s a girl. Is she in danger? Can she be trusted? Can anyone on the IM Force be trusted? Ethan’s been betrayed before, remember: by Jim Phelps (Jon Voigt) in the first, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) in the second, and ... was it John Musgrave (Billy Crudup) in the third? Does it matter?

The good news is there’s no mole within the Impossible Mission Force this time around. Score one for employee screening. Agents have secrets, sure, but no one’s selling out to America’s enemies. They’re a team finally.

The better news is this team and its enemies seems assembled from the 2009 Spirit Awards. They grabbed Jeremy Renner, who was disarming IEDs in “The Hurt Locker” that year, to play William Brandt, the analyst with a sad secret. They took the gorgeous inner-city schoolteacher from 2009’s “Precious,” Paula Patton, for their Jane Carter, the agent whose last bungled mission led to the death of her lover. Finally, Michael Nyqvist, the first Mikael Blomqvist of the “Dragon Tattoo” movies, which was released in 2009, gets to play Kurt Hendricks, the evil Swedish genius who wants to start a global nuclear war as a way to cleanse the world’s palette.

Evil Swedish genius. When was the last time anyone had to use that phrase?

So, yes, there’s a mission, and, yes, it goes awry. The IM team is supposed to steal Russian nuclear launch codes, or something, from the Kremlin, but Hendricks gets there first, then blows up the Kremlin. The IM Force is implicated, and thus disavowed, and then their secretary (Tom Wilkinson) is shot in the head by Russian police, so they have to save the world without the usual bells and whistles—although the bells and whistles they wind up with are pretty damned good.

Yes, there’s a great stunt: a Spider-Man climb using sticky gloves (blue is glue, red is dead) up the side of the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, 163 stories tall. Just removing the glass window that allows Ethan outside causes vertigo in comic-relief agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg). In us, too, when director Brad Bird gives us a peek over the edge.

Yes, there’s a foot-chase through an international market, also Dubai, with Cruise running in that peculiar upright motion of his; and, yes, there’s a mission in a swanky hotel, in Mumbai, India, that allows for tuxedos and cleavage, and, yes, a final fist fight between hero and villain amidst raising and lowering automobiles in a Mumbai garage as the fate of San Francisco, and possibly the world, hangs in the balance. It’s got all that.

But what makes this “M:I” movie work for me is the opposite of the old antiperspirant slogan: we get to see ’em sweat.

My favorite moment is a throwaway. The Kremlin’s been blown up and Ethan’s caught up in it. He sees the explosions, he begins to race away, but unlike in most movies, it catches him and the screen goes black and silent. Then he wakes up in a Russian hospital with one wrist hooked to an IV and the other handcuffed to his hospital gurney. A Russian cop, Sidorov, (Vladimir Mashkov), attempts to interrogate him but a nurse wheels him away. In the process, Ethan gets hold of a paper clip. Sidorov follows, has a brief conversation with a subordinate, and when he turns Ethan’s gurney is empty. Shocked, he looks out the window and finds Ethan, despite being banged and bruised and shirtless, way out on the ledge, and eyeing a trash bin three or four stories below. In most action movies, Ethan would just make the jump and continue on his way. Here, Sidorov sees Ethan’s potential escape route, judges its impossibility, and, when their eyes meet, shrugs and nods toward the trash bin in a kind of “Go ahead” gesture. I laughed out loud.

The movie has a few such moments—the opposite of action-hero stoic—and they’re welcome to see. But “Ghost Protocol” is still an action movie and thus mostly forgettable.

Plus the plot, like most action-movie plots, doesn’t really hold up. Before the movie even begins, IMF fakes the death of Ethan’s wife, which provides cover for Ethan’s slaughter of several Serbian assassins, which gets him inside a Russian jail so he can gain intel on Hendricks, whom they’ve already targeted. So why doesn’t he recognize Hendricks when they walk past each other in the Kremlin?

And how about that moment in the end? The IM team is sharing beers in that pier in Seattle, which is really Vancouver, B.C., and Benji looks around at all the people strolling about, including probably me, and wonders aloud over their ignorance. The poor fools, he says, don’t know that they were this close to getting blown up. And they don’t know they were this close to getting blown up because the various governments involved are effectively covering things up and the media is ineffectively doing its job. The missile that landed in San Francisco Bay? Space debris. The Kremlin in shambles? An accidental gas leak. In this universe, both media and government tamp down fear rather than raise it. There’s no Donald Rumsfeld or FOX-News raising threat levels. I suppose what feels false here isn’t that the media is incompetent; it’s that, in its incompetence, it’s anodyne rather than vaguely hysterical.

But let’s pretend it’s possible for a Russian sub to shoot a nuclear warhead at a major American city and no one outside of government—such as the scientific community, with access to all the data they have—would figure it out. Who benefits from our ignorance? Government? Media? Put it another way: What would happen if all of those people strolling about in downtown Seattle, including probably me, knew we had been this close to the end? Wouldn’t we suddenly get serious and focused? Wouldn’t the awful cultural flotsam fall away like scales from our eyes, and we would see the world clean and cold? And in our newfound seriousness, wouldn’t we have less time for things like ... oh, I don’t know ... “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”?

So who benefits from our ignorance? A good argument can be made for Paramount Pictures and Tom Cruise Productions. Someone should send Ethan to investigate.

—January 2, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard