Mission Impossible revisited: Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol
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Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol took the franchise to new heights – but how does the film look now? We’ve been taking a look…


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If you ran a poll asking the average film goer, and indeed the average film critic, which of the Mission Impossible films they considered to be the strongest outing in the franchise, you would have a significant amount point to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. On the face of it, you can see why. Once you scratch deeper, those reasons become more opaque.

Though it took another five years after Mission Impossible III for Tom Cruise to slip back into the shoes of super spy Ethan Hunt, Ghost Protocol operates far more as a sequel to J.J. Abrams’ picture than any of the other Mission Impossible films. This in no small part is down to the fact Abrams’ film rescued Paramount’s franchise from becoming lost inside its own mythic storytelling, and wrenched it further back towards the original fusion of team-based espionage and escapist theatrics Bruce Geller’s 1960s TV series made so popular.

These aspects are fully embraced in Ghost Protocol after the groundwork and foundations were laid by Abrams but, once again, Mission Impossible continues Ethan’s story by reinventing itself.

Not to the same degree we saw Brian De Palma’s chillier, post-Cold War deconstruction in the first Mission Impossible segue into the slick, post-90s American hero reconstruction of Mission Impossible II, but Ghost Protocol does not follow entirely the same format or style that Abrams delivered – though there are clear similarities. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol has Abrams as a producer, the film still part of his Bad Robot stable, and writers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec are both late of Alias, the TV show which Abrams essentially adapted for MI3.

In some respects, though Abrams was almost certainly busy working on Super 8 and thinking about what would become Star Trek Into Darkness by this point, you wonder if he knew he had already told his archetypal Mission Impossible story in one movie, and didn’t really need to repeat the trick as director.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and MI3 also share a likeness of tone, to a degree; a combination of high concept spy thrills with relaxed, at times almost nerdy self-aware comedy, underpinned by a level of emotional character investment. Where Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol differs, however, is that replacement director Brad Bird dials all of that emotion, and the clear, definable emotional arc that Ethan had in MI3, way back down. Abrams, in his take on the material, wanted you to care about Ethan’s existential dilemma about both saving the world and seeking a normal family life, but Bird immediately takes that dilemma back away from Ethan in Ghost Protocol. Michelle Monaghan gets a cameo, sure, but it’s almost tokenistic – the happiness and equilibrium Ethan achieved at the end of MI3 disappears, much like Ethan in the last shot of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, in a puff of smoke.

In some respects, this was almost a inevitability. MI3 could have ended the franchise as a trilogy with how Abrams gives Ethan an ‘out’ of the spy life, much like his protagonist Sydney Bristow eventually gets in Alias – though tellingly that series ends with the suggestion Sydney will never quite escape the role of world-saving superhero.

The same is true of Ethan. Paramount could in theory have chosen this moment as a point of divergence, and either rebooted Mission Impossible or chosen to continue the saga without Tom Cruise, but Cruise by this point not only understood that he had become Mission Impossible to modern audiences, but that his entire career had pivoted around Ethan Hunt. Age hasn’t tempered Cruise – each Mission Impossible film has seen him challenge himself to undertake increasingly dangerous, extreme stunts, which have led to sequences you rarely see in other action adventure franchises.

Though Ethan in subsequent films has not been crafted in the vein of a lost, mythic American masculine hero like we saw in MI2, Ghost Protocol once again begins to put Ethan back on the path toward existing as a larger-than-life superhero spy character. MI3 humanised and grounded him but Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol rockets him back into orbit, whether it’s single-handedly escaping a Russian prison, climbing the Burj Khalifa in Dubai without a harness, or racing cars through desert sandstorms.

Brad Bird’s sequel strips away any significant emotional character arc for Ethan and returns him, both in terms of rationale and narrative, back toward the position he was in after the first act of de Palma’s Mission Impossible. Ghost Protocol is more like that original picture than you might have remembered.

Previously: Revisiting Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible
Previously: Revisiting John Woo’s Mission Impossible II
Previously: Revisiting J.J. Abrams’ Mission Impossible III

Consider the similarities. MI begins with Ethan disavowed and considered a traitor by IMF and the CIA after his team, his friends, are killed. After the first act of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Ethan is now considered responsible for the bombing of the Kremlin, the IMF is disbanded, and he loses a friend in the Secretary (played in a nice cameo by Tom Wilkinson, continuing the tradition of the IMF having a new superior in every single movie). The Secretary’s final words are even telling Ethan he considers him a friend. In MI, Ethan has to put together a ramshackle team of misfits to clear his name and expose the real culprit. In GP, Ethan ends up with the vengeful Jane Carter (Paula Patton), green Benji Dunn (a returning Simon Pegg) and enigmatic William Brandt (a fresh-faced Jeremy Renner), and they too must work to restore the IMF and their reputations while figuring out how to operate as a well-oiled unit.

The biggest similarity between both films is arguably in terms of how the missions are constructed.

De Palma put together what still could be the two most iconic Mission Impossible set pieces in the Langley CIA break in (with Ethan dangling on the wire in the vault) and the climactic Eurostar train roof fight, and all of these sequences were riven with tight plotting and a complex web of circumstances which built tension. John Woo and later Abrams favoured very different approaches to the missions in their films; Woo went for Cruise as a swaggering, one-man hero, while Abrams had a fully-functional team who largely breezed through entertaining but fairly uncomplicated trials. Bird, particularly in the extensive Dubai section on which Ghost Protocol hangs, attempts to get back to the technicality of De Palma’s film and, of course, the original series before it.

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol

There are clues as to why Bird may have favoured this approach over the personalisation Abrams introduced in his previous picture, and part of it comes down to Bird’s own approach and preferences in terms of how cinema is presented:

The two things that movies have that you can’t get anywhere else are really big screens and an audience. … I feel like multiplexes and the shutting down of the grand old theaters have taken a lot of the showmanship out of presenting movies. There used to be a thing such as “first run.” The meaning of “first run” is gone now because on opening day you can see a brand new movie on a good screen but it’s more likely you’ll see it on a crappy screen. And it can even be a small, crappy screen. It used to be that when a movie opened, if you wanted to see it early, you had to see it great. To me, the best example of showmanship now is IMAX. I pushed to shoot in IMAX, and Paramount went along with me, so we filmed a good chunk of this movie in IMAX, which is a pain in the butt. The cameras are big and they’re noisy. But the image quality — you can’t get that any other way … you really feel it when it’s in IMAX.

In that same interview, Bird also discusses the first Mission Impossible as an inspiration, particularly the playfulness which underwrites the confidence of Ethan’s character in that movie:

One of my favorite moments acting-wise were the scenes he did with Vanessa Redgrave. He kind of came alive in a slightly different way. You could tell he had a lot of respect for Redgrave and knew that he had to be on his game because she was going to get every drop out of her part of the scene so he better get every drop of his. There was a playfulness to those scenes together that I really liked. When you see the film, it’s a little more playful than the other “Mission: Impossible” films — hopefully without undermining the suspense or action. You guys did a thing recently on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” turning 30, and that’s a film that is one of my favorites and I cited it as a really good balance between humor and action. The humor is there but it’s not done in a self-conscious, wink-wink, Roger-Moore-as-James-Bond way, and it doesn’t undercut the action. That’s a tone I was inspired by and wanted to get to some extent in this, but without making it the oddball “Mission: Impossible” that doesn’t feel like it could sit alongside the other ones.

It is worth stopping and considering both of these aspects, particularly in the context of Bird as a director.

Ghost Protocol was his first live action picture, having rose to prominence as one the major players in Disney’s Pixar, the man behind both The Incredibles and Ratatouille, not just two of the finest animated movies ever made but two of the strongest movies of their decade – and this doesn’t even take into account how his first picture was the much loved The Iron Giant. Bird proved in these animated pictures that he appreciated spectacle and, as he terms it, showmanship. He wants cinema to be an experience and understands that Mission Impossible is precisely the kind of major, tentpole franchise, built on half a century of pop-culture resonance, that befits a broad, cinematic and elegant scope.

Ghost Protocol does capture what he was looking to emulate above. While it lacks the tension, skill, intrigue and artistry of De Palma’s original, it absolutely has the playfulness. By elevating Pegg’s role as the tech geek cum green field agent, Bird allows for a great deal more open comic interplay off Cruise’s taciturn leading man heroism than in MI3 (and certainly MI2, which barely had a shot of humour across the entire thing).

Anil Kapoor’s foppish Indian media tycoon Brij Nath is pure James Bond camp – a strange cross between Tomorrow Never Dies’ villain Elliot Carver and a horny rich dilettante; indeed the entire India sequence toward the end of the picture is the most overtly James Bond of the series yet, with Cruise sporting a tuxedo sauntering around Nath’s exorbitant, glamorous party, while Patton’s Jane uses her feminine wiles. De Palma’s film was far too chilly and technical to allow such elegant, indulgent affectations in his picture.

The simple fact, however, is that Brad Bird is no Brian De Palma.

Bird has most recently returned to Pixar with Incredibles 2, following the failure of his second attempt at live action with the warm-hearted science-fiction family tale Tomorrowland in 2015 (alongside another Abrams alumni, Lost’s Damon Lindelof). While most consider Ghost Protocol a directorial success for Bird, one its rampant $600 million plus box office would bear out, the trick wasn’t repeated for Tomorrowland which looks set to become a cult film in time which, undoubtedly, many will say is under-appreciated. What it shares with Ghost Protocol, however—and where GP differs strongly from the first MI—is that both films absolutely fall off a cliff in their underwhelming final acts. Bird doesn’t seem able, in live action, to stick the landing.

This is partly why I don’t really understand why Ghost Protocol achieves the level of adoration it does because, honestly, there is something missing from Bird’s film. It has the technique, the set pieces—the Dubai sequence could well be the best staged set piece of the entire series to this point—and the mixture of humour, glamour and narrative trickiness. Yet there is a pervasive emptiness to Ghost Protocol which becomes more and more apparent on subsequent viewings. De Palma’s original is about how covert espionage can be defined in the post-Cold War landscape. Woo’s sequel is about the Campbellian duality of good and evil. Abrams’ third picture is about the balance of a normal life and secret, selfless heroism. What is Ghost Protocol about? The answer isn’t entirely clear.

Christopher McQuarrie, who would go on to direct the franchise following Rogue Nation, discussed how he contributed uncredited script work on Ghost Protocol and it reveals a few interesting clues:

On Ghost Protocol I came in on the middle of the shoot to do a rewrite of the screenplay, though they had already started the movie. I had to communicate with the entire staff to determine what I could and couldn’t change, what sets had been built or struck, what scenes I could or couldn’t reshoot. I learned so much about production being right there. …The script had these fantastic sequences in it but there was a mystery in it that was very complicated. What I did was about clarity. The mystery had to be made simpler. It’s like reaching into a sock and pulling it inside out. It’s still a sock, still all the same pieces, but all put together in a different order.

The irony of a ghost writer on Ghost Protocol not being lost on any of us,

McQuarrie’s words suggest the fourth Mission Impossible picture hadn’t exactly come together in terms of narrative and, almost certainly, theme when his rewrites came to bear. It’s not uncommon for uncredited rewrites on major pictures, of course, indeed most of the recognisably great action movies had them (take Joss Whedon on Speed for example) but you can read into McQuarrie’s words a sense that perhaps Ghost Protocol didn’t really know what it wanted to be in a not too dissimilar manner as how, with MI2, Robert Towne crafted his screenplay around the established action set pieces Woo intended to film regardless.

It is likely Bird did have more of a conceptual idea of where he wanted Ghost Protocol to go and what he wanted it to be, but unpicking the substance beneath the style takes some work. If Ethan has a level of character arc, it is woven into the mystery surrounding the big questions of “what happened to Julia?” and “who is Brandt?”, both of which aren’t entirely answered until the final scene and, surprise surprise, end up being closely connected. Given the film opens with the murder of IMF agent Hanaway, setting Jane on what could be considered a course of vengeance which reflects Ethan’s own, thematically this suggests loss exists at the heart of GP suggests loss as its commentary, but it barely gets any exploration in terms of the script or story.

Where it differs from MI3 is that Abrams kept these emotional and dramatic through-lines central to the entire narrative. The villain and his goals ended up connected directly with Ethan’s relationship with Julia and the secret he was keeping from her.

Ghost Protocol flips this around so that Ethan is keeping secrets from us, and this too is similar to the first Mission Impossible. In that movie, we’re not in on his plan to unmask Jim Phelps until Phelps realises it in the final act, and it becomes apparent retrospectively that Ethan was playing a long game for a while. In GP, Ethan not only knows Julia isn’t dead, but seems to understand the reasons for the angst Brandt carries with him and forms the key to the mystery of why he’s clearly a tooled-up agent posing as a useless analyst. Bird works to distance Ethan from us, unlike Abrams who sought to make him relatable and bring him closer.

These are not in and of themselves problems as they are issues of personal perspective – some will prefer Ethan with that distance, some won’t. What Ghost Protocol doesn’t do, however, is find any way to tether any sense of personalisation between Ethan, his team or the villain, Michael Nyqvist’s Kurt Hendricks. MI had Phelps, Ethan’s boss. MI2 had the creepy Sean Ambrose, the betrayer and dark reflection of Ethan. MI3 had Owen Davian try and kill Ethan’s wife once he made the search for the Rabbit’s Foot personal. Hendricks, in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, barely gets any screen-time and when he does, remains an arch and unknowable figure, merely a villainous cipher for the globe-trotting missions and a vague suggestion of geopolitical, post-terrorist extremism. Hendricks is just an anarchist with nuclear launch codes and a smart suit, and that’s about it. There is no weight to anything he does, and he even lacks the cruel charm or fun material of a silly, over the top Bond villain.

Mission Impossible only really as a franchise steered into realistic geopolitical waters with De Palma’s movie and its elegy for the spy game of the Cold War, one in which the players knew who the game was between – the superpowers America and Russia. MI2 and MI3, albeit in very different ways, both went for an over the top super weapon as the threat and a non-nationalistic villain in both Ambrose and Davian who could realistically have been from anywhere – much as Dougray Scott plays the former as brattish Scotsman and Philip Seymour Hoffman the latter as a preppy Yale or Harvard graduate who used his skills and intelligence for evil. This is an assumed backstory for the mysterious Davian, but it may well fit!

Ghost Protocol again veers closer to MI by having more of a geopolitical bent; Hendricks is specifically attempting to pit America and Russia against each other once more, first by giving the Russians an equivalent to 9/11 in the Kremlin bombing (interesting how GP is exactly a decade on from the Twin Towers attack) and latterly in his manipulation of nuclear weapons systems which he intends to use to make it look as if a Russian submarine is responsible for a nuclear attack on San Francisco. This idea isn’t new – Tom Clancy did it in his book The Sum of All Fears (and later the movie version with Ben Affleck), numerous Bond films have created cartoonish lone super villains attempting to throw the superpowers into World War Three, and even Alias in its final episode tries the exact same thing. Ghost Protocol, however, never really convinces you of the stakes. Perhaps it is like a Bond movie of old in that you never really doubt Ethan and his team will prevail.

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol

You feel this is where Ghost Protocol misses an opportunity. It struggles to define itself beyond the outward, admittedly impressive, theatrics which showcase the Mission Impossible concept and the continued super-heroics of Tom Cruise. It doesn’t even entirely hold true to the marketing, which displays Cruise in much grungier fashion, wrapped in a hooded jacket, surrounded by the sandstorm browns of the desert, which is a stark contrast to the fiery intensity of MI2‘s poster or the sleek spy-fi and buzz cut hairdo on MI3‘s promotional material. Going in, you may have expected Ghost Protocol to maybe cut a bit on the dark side, inspired perhaps by the grittier heroism Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight had made cache around this time, and yet… Ghost Protocol remains decidedly spry, colourful and overblown, more so than any of the films in the franchise up to this point.

It’s interesting too how the majority of its cast all ended up either part of or on the verge of roles which cemented their positions within cinema and pop-culture beyond Mission Impossible. The late Nyqvist was picked up from the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo pictures. Josh Holloway, as the ill-fated Hanaway, had just finished playing slippery rogue Sawyer on Lost and was still present in the public consciousness. Lea Seydoux, barely making a mark here as cold assassin Moreau, would break out in the taboo challenging Blue is the Warmest Colour before not quite convincing as James Bond’s great love in Spectre.

The most interesting is Renner, who the year after would appear as Hawkeye in the globally successful and critically acclaimed benchmark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers Assemble, after a brief introductory cameo in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor. The same year as Avengers Assemble, he would attempt to be the anchor which relaunched the Bourne franchise without, err… Bourne, in The Bourne Legacy, which met with little success.

None of the above supporting actors have quite fulfilled their potential as of yet and Renner is perhaps the most key of these – outside of the occasional appearance as Hawkeye (he is arguably the least used Avenger of them all), Renner in subsequent years has veered more toward grittier, low-key fare such as Taylor Sheridan’s chilly Wind River than embracing the glossy blockbuster. If he and Brandt were ever considered as possible replacements for Cruise and Hunt, it didn’t last long.

This is why we cannot underestimate, yet again, the star wattage of Tom Cruise as the anchor of Mission Impossible, because he remains the engine which keeps Ghost Protocol both on the rails as an entertaining, if unexpectedly throwaway, entry into a franchise which conventional wisdom suggests just ‘keeps on getting better’. This doesn’t ring true, and appears to be a popular myth about Mission Impossible which remains prevalent. Many are too quick to throw away de Palma’s original, for a start, when it remains the most directly artistic and interesting of all the pictures to date, because it predates the point Cruise truly became Mission Impossible.

If MI3 is also too quickly disregarded, then Ghost Protocol perhaps is remembered too fondly thanks to the surface, when the layers simply aren’t there. It can absolutely be enjoyed on its own terms, and when it entertains it does indeed have the level of bravura showmanship Brad Bird sought, perhaps more than any of the Mission Impossible films up to that point. But the best Mission Impossible film? I just don’t see it and, crucially, I don’t feel it.

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