The Review: Some franchises manage to knock out films like they’re going out of fashion; others prefer to take their time, attempting to mature like a fine wine. It took us seventeen years to see four Alien films, eighteen years to get to four Die Hards and ten more than that again for the fourth Indiana Jones film to roll around. There’s often a feeling, especially when looking through lists like that, that by the time a franchise gets to number four it might not as well have bothered. Even if you have a strong central idea, finding ways to take the story for a fourth trip round the block can be tricky; when your third film was five years ago, and your star had such a public bout of crazy that audiences stayed away in droves, then you might be forgiven for thinking that someone, somewhere, was still channelling that crazy. But you know what? Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol might be up there with the best in the franchise, possibly even the best, so how did that happen?
First off, it has a lot to do with the star. He might do a passable impersonation of a Tasmanian devil on a couch from time to time, but Tom Cruise is still The World’s Biggest Movie Star™ (no pun intended). Part of the reason that the series has never been less than watchable is Tom himself; for any perceived faults offscreen, when he turns on the charisma onscreen he has the star power to cause the rest of the movie to gravitate to him. In the M:I series, he’s brought something else, a willingness to commit to his own stunts which has given the films that added sense of danger. Whether running through an exploding fish tank or hanging off a mountain, he’s absolutely committed to his craft, and suitably for the fourth film he’s taking things, quite literally, to new heights, running about on top of the world’s tallest skyscraper with an energy and a madness that would shame most men half his age. He’s a little more dialled down here, skimping on the goofy grinning and instead showing off muscles and smoulder, but still he’s the nexus which links the series and the film itself together.
The other secrets have been renewal and a sense of personal craft. Mission: Impossible was completely and unmistakeably a Brian De Palma film; John Woo’s fingerprints and JJ Abrams’ lens flare (ow, my eyes) were all over the sequels. Brad Bird might not be quite the auteur of his predecessors but he has a gift for storytelling and can shoot an action sequence to within an inch of its life. Sadly, the first area is a slight let-down here, attempts at grafting personal conflict coming over as half hearted, and Mission: Protocol – Impossible Ghost, or whatever, is better when it sticks to being a Cold War throwback film, almost as if the last twenty years never happened in the real world. The emotional arcs also result in a coda that feels tacked on and unnecessary, rather than the satisfying resolution to the plot it could have been. The only other slight failing is Michael Giacchino’s score, so relentlessly staccato that it might induce a form of aural epilepsy by the time you attempt to leave the cinema.
But everything else works a treat. Simon Pegg gets a promotion to field agent and but still manages to leaven the film with a streak of mild humour without unbalancing the tone, Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner have just about sufficient character to round out an enjoyable team, and the story never tries to get too much in the way of the string of set pieces that keep the momentum moving nicely. You feel it might have been nice to give Michael Nyqvist’s Eurotrash bad guy a few more juicy lines, but it doesn’t derail the rest of the film. Brad Bird has achieved the seeming impossible, breathing new life into this fourth entry but in a way that has echoes of all three previous films, and the actions sequences are well framed and, especially in the case of the skyscraper caper, genuinely tense and utterly thrilling. From the time the opening credits unspool with the traditional highlight reel and Lalo Shifrin’s iconic theme blasts out, Mission: Ghost – Thingummy Whatsit kicks into a high gear and never lets up. Jeremy Renner was brought in to take over the mantle, but on this evidence here’s hoping the Cruiser’s got one more in him before he stops accepting missions.
Why see it at the cinema: Action films are an increasingly rare commodity these days, big studios preferring to spend their money on costumed crusaders rather than old-fashioned car chases and shoot-outs. So when one does come round, and it’s as enjoyable as this, then make it your Saturday night priority, and don’t forget the popcorn.
Why see it in IMAX: If you even have the tiniest fear of heights, the moment when the camera follows Tom Cruise as he steps out of the window of the 130th floor of the Burj Khalifa and then pans down to see the ground in the far distance, in the crystal clear quality of the IMAX image, should cause your heart to leap up through your chest, out of your mouth and to head for the nearest exit forthwith.
The Score: 8/10
Oh, and what about that Dark Knight Rises prologue? If you’ve not heard by now, it’s the opening six minutes of The Dark Knight Rises, plus a brief teaser trailer lasting about a minute. If you saw The Dark Knight in IMAX, then the prologue is easily the equal of anything from that, and without giving away anything much, if they did what they did for real, then wow, and if they didn’t, then CGI has developed to a point of such total realism that you’ll no longer care that you can’t tell the difference.
There is an issue with Bane’s dialogue (I was paying close attention, and I think I caught about 75% of what Tom Hardy actually says, but it looks to be another character study to rival Heath Ledger’s – Nolan seems to know how to get the best out of his actors), but somehow Nolan is such a perfectionist that it feels like a deliberate ploy at this stage, rather than something careless in the sound mix. Only seven and a half months to found out…
The Review: Ben Affleck has been somewhat derided over the years, but his best contributions to the world of movies have undoubtedly been from behind the camera. For years, his Oscar-winning writing collaboration with close friend Matt Damon was viewed as a one-off, but then his genuinely impressive directorial debut Gone Baby Gone marked him out as a director to watch. Affleck the actor has always been more of a mixed bag though, so there was bound to be a fascination in seeing what Affleck the director could get out of Affleck the actor.
The results are certainly more to the credit of Affleck the director, who again shows that he can deal with action and drama with equal aplomb, and as with his debut knows how to get the best from his actors. Affleck comes across as believable both as the thug who’s out robbing banks and the goofy guy who gets close to bank worker Rebecca Hall (who’s also excellent) to see how much she knows. He’s again managed to surround himself with a solid ensemble, including Jeremy Renner as the more loose cannon member of their crew, Jon Hamm as the FBI man chasing them down and the likes of the always dependable Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite in small but crucial roles.
So there are no complaints at all about the actors, but the rest of the movie is not without fault. First off, the story feels just a little generic, been-there-done-that, and when a Boston crime movie has walked off with a Best Picture Oscar in the last five years, unfortunately you are giving yourself a high standard for comparison, and that’s also reflected in the slight lack of energy – while there’s meat in the drama scenes and the action is solid, the shift between the two and the pacing somehow feels off and saps everything of that spark that would take this from good to great.
Gone Baby Gone also stood out because it posed some fascinating moral conundrums and the story went in unexpected directions. While this doesn’t take any unwanted avenues, it is also eminently predictable and you end up watching more for the performances than anything else. That makes it worth a watch, but it also leaves it feeling slight when it could have been weighty, and you’ll struggle to remember too much about it after the lights have gone up. Affleck the director is still a talent to be reckoned with, and Affleck the actor shows his strengths here; sadly his co-writer credit is the weak spot this time, and let’s just hope he gets better material to work with next time he’s behind a camera.
Why see it at the cinema: The action scenes are thankfully not in the jittery Bay-cam style, but if anything the movie could stand a little more action and a little less conversation. Still worth a cinema visit, but not essential viewing.
The Score: 7/10