Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is so preposterously entertaining that it makes watching other recent Hollywood action spectacles feel like work. What in the last few years even compares to it?
The last Mission: Impossible installment, J. J. Abrams’s M:I-III, had a few diverting set pieces punctuated by way too much grimness and suffering. Abrams’s Star Trek was a lot more fun, more because of the bold, witty script and wonderful performances than much memorable action. Chris Nolan’s Inception was visually and conceptually dazzling, and his Batman films are as good as comic-book movies get, but Nolan has yet to shoot a single action sequence as lucid and powerful as any of the string of authoritative set pieces that highlight Ghost Protocol.
Next to Ghost Protocol, most recent action flicks look either paltry (Iron Man, Salt), bloated (2012, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) or dreary (Robin Hood, Clash of the Titans). With the lone exception of the latest mega-blockbuster from one of Hollywood’s canniest veteran filmmakers—James Cameron’s Avatar—I can’t think of another recent action spectacle that looks so good or that handles action so well.
Quite an achievement for a director whose CV for the last 12 years consists of three animated films—even if those films are The Iron Giant and the Oscar-winning Pixar films The Incredibles and Ratatouille—and who is now venturing into live action for the first time.
In a way, it might not have been surprising had Bird chosen to make a movie more like Avatar—that is, more like a computer-animated film, with lots of reliance on digital imagery. Instead, Bird has gone the other way, masterfully embracing old-fashioned practical effects, real-world stunts and clear, clean storytelling almost revolutionary in these days of hyperedited closeups and handheld cameras.
The press notes say that it was Tom Cruise’s idea to shoot the riveting Burj Khalifa sequence in Dubai high on the face of the real Burj Khalifa, now the tallest building in the world, rather than working with sets and computer effects. I believe it. No director in the world could ask any star in the world to do what Cruise does in that sequence.
Of course digital post-production was used to erase the safety gear Cruise wore and so forth, but still and all it’s really Cruise, really over 100 stories up in the air high over the United Arab Emirates desert landscape, making like Spider-Man on the glass face of a needle-like skyscraper in the punishing Middle Eastern sun and winds. Cruise deserves all the credit in the world for the commitment and hard work that went into the sequence—but Bird’s achievement is making it breathtakingly suspenseful and immediate.
Plenty of directors can make even real stunt sequences look comparable to overprocessed fakery. Exhibit A: Brett Ratner’s first two Rush Hour films. Come to think of it, Ratner’s current film, Tower Heist, has a climactic scene with characters dangling from the face of a high-rise that made me think, while I was watching it, how much fun that scene ought to have been had it been shot by a director with any imagination or flair. Bird knows how to communicate the vertiginous thrill of a man stepping out into empty space thousands of feet above the ground. So few directors do these days.
At my IMAX screening, a friend pronounced the Burj Khalifa sequence the best Hollywood action scene in the last 25 years. I wouldn’t go that far. Leaving out vehicular sequences like the Bourne car chases and effects-driven sequences like the Matrix lobby sequence and The Fellowship of the Ring‘s Mines of Moria, for real human stuntwork the top candidate that comes to mind is the opening parkour set piece in Casino Royale. Still, the Burj Khalifa is a standout—and it’s only one of four or five terrific set pieces making Ghost Protocol a knockout, even if at times the action verges into overly cartoony exaggeration.
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