Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Mission Rewatchable, Part Ghost

After realizing I hadn't seen most since their theatrical runs, I'm rewatching and reevaluating the Mission: Impossible film series in preparation for Fallout.

This is where the *SPOILER WARNING* goes, though - honestly - it barely matters for this one.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

This one's awkward. Up until this point, my opinions have vaguely trended with critical consensus, but that changes here. Ghost Protocol is tied with Rogue Nation on Rotten Tomatoes with a stunning 93% fresh. And I just don't get it.

The weird thing is, I usually like the director. Strike that - I usually love Brad Bird's movies. I even found Tomorrowland compelling and beautiful, and that's below 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. But Ghost Protocol leaves me underwhelmed.

While I don't like it, I don't hate it, either. The action is solid, the comedic bits are funny, and there's a twist at the end I really dig. But overall, the movie feels completely devoid of substance. Aside from the first, every movie in this series is kind of forgettable, but most have something about them I feel is deserving of being remembered. But Ghost Protocol is just... there's very little here aside from a disjointed series of action beats.

The movie pretends there's more, of course. It introduces a pair of new agents, each with a brief backstory/motivation that interferes with the mission. The first, played by Paula Patton, wants revenge against the hired assassin who killed her boyfriend. I actually appreciate that her arc is mirroring Hunt's from early movies (i.e.: she held her lover as he died, and she's driven by a desire for justice). But all this makes up a fairly minor portion of the film, and it's all just so silly. Given her profession, you'd think she'd have some sympathy for the hired killer and maybe be more interested in the mastermind who ordered the hit.

The backstory given to Jeremy Renner's character is a little more interesting. He was tasked with protecting Ethan and Julia in an off-screen mission which resulted in Julia's death. Ethan has no idea he was in charge of his wife's security, which promises drama that's never delivered (for good reason, in my opinion - the reveal at the end is more in keeping with the franchise's commitment to misdirection and illusion).

All of this results in a lot of squabbling when the mission goes south in the second act, but it gets hand-waved so fast, it comes off feeling trivial. When the team fights each other, they fail. When they work together, they win. In other words: cooperation is good, knowing is half the battle, enjoy your breakfast cereal.

That's all you get in terms of theme, and it's got jack to do with the actual plot, which centers around a madman trying to start a nuclear war. Though "plot" may be a generous descriptor, since there's very little connective tissue. You can connect the dots (i.e. they went to place 'x' because of clue 'y') if you want to, but it's pretty obvious everything that's introduced is present to justify either a set piece, a new location, or a joke. Nothing feels organic or satisfying.

The villain is barely in the movie - we are literally told instead of shown his paper-thin motivation, and we're never told why, exactly, an academic is able to go head-to-head with the world's best spy in a fistfight. If he has a personality, we never see it. At the end of the movie, the only things I really know about him are he's a nihilist, and he's willing to die to bring about World War 3. That's not a lot to hang a movie off of.

This movie has no backbone, nothing holding it together. There are some good action scenes (the Russian prison escape, Hunt scaling the world's tallest building, the fight in the automated parking garage, etc.), along with some clever gags, but that's all. There's no interesting tale of espionage, no inner conflict, and no unique tone. Just one zany thing after another, punctuated with a moral that feels ripped from an 80's Saturday morning cartoon.

All of that being said, this is far superior to MI2. Ghost Protocol is lacking substance, but the sequences are far more interesting and far less offensive. I appreciate how it subverts the trend towards fridging that permeates the first and third movies. It actually subverts it twice by having a male character die to motivate a woman, and again with the fake-out around Hunt's wife: everyone assumes he's driven by losing her, but he secretly knows she's fine.

Plus, this comes closest to getting back to the team dynamic missing from this franchise since it moved to the big screen. It can't quite pull it off, because the cornerstone of a cinematic team is specialization, and three fourths of this group are interchangeable super spies. But of course that's an issue inherited from the second installment - I'm not sure there's a good fix at this point, short of removing Cruise from the series and rebooting with a more balanced team.

At the end of the day, this doesn't strike me as an awful film, but it certainly doesn't feel like a great (or even good) one. It's watchable, but instantly forgettable. There's nothing about the characters to make them interesting, the villain is as boring as they come, and the plot is so thin it's almost nonexistent.

Am I missing something here? I feel like I must be, given how much critics (and fans) loved this. If anyone has a different take, I'd love to know why this is as popular as it is. I just don't see it.

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