The 'Mission' series has been something of an oddity for such a successful franchise. Each film has been quite distinct from the other and all have been fraught with enough problems that none have ever really established a model that further sequels or other franchises have tried to emulate. This fourth entry, director Brad Bird's first foray into live-action after two of Pixar's most acclaimed efforts, comes the closest to grasping the greatness that has eluded the series. It does so precisely because it keeps its focus on the basics, and if nothing else proves that there's still a lot to be said for formulaic action when it's handled with such aplomb.
I've a big soft spot for Brian De Palma's Euro-centric mid-90's original thanks to its strong supporting cast (like Vanessa Redgrave's deliciously fun arms dealer), several impressive set pieces and a solid spy game storyline let down mostly by some ridiculous third act shenanigans which were typical of that time in blockbuster filmmaking. John Woo's Sydney-set and "Notorious"-inspired sequel was a visually impressive but exceedingly dull slog of a follow-up. Painfully dumbed down, it seemed to mostly consist of a lot of slow-motion shootouts on sandstone cliffs and bike chases along national park highways.
Though a definite improvement over Woo's entry, I'm not a fan J.J. Abrams' third 'Mission'. A noble but ultimately failed attempt at deconstructing the series and humanising Ethan Hunt, the goal was high but the end result was akin to the weaker final few seasons of Abrams' own far more engaging "Alias" TV series. A mostly uninteresting cast was thrown together with the most basic and overused tropes of the genre and laced with all the tedious shootouts and CG enhanced explosions a big budget could buy. The only real memorable touches were the Vatican City infiltration sequence and Phillip Seymour Hoffman's strong (but brief) turn as the film's thuggish villain.
What was the third film's greatest strength is the fourth film's most notable weakness. Michael Nyqvist's Russian baddie is more mannered but ultimately not much more developed than the antagonist he played in the ridiculous "Abduction" a few months back. The man plans to steal codes and launch a nuclear war - not for any justifiable or even believable reason, rather he's just a nut. As a result the film's plot is a loose framework to string together numerous set pieces across three major cities - Moscow, Dubai, Mumbai - to stop his plan.
Yet an undercooked plot and a weak villain ultimately matter little. Bird delivers one of the most entertaining and energetic studio films this year by embracing a classic action approach rather than running away from it in an attempt to seem edgy. We're in an era where the genre standard has become the downbeat Bourne-esque approach of tortured heroes, brutal fisticuffs, and drunken handheld cinematography. 'Protocol' bucks the trend, bringing back exotic locales shot with wide framing, a focus on glossy style over dark grit, ambitious stunts rather than generic shootouts, an embracing of high-tech gadgets, and even (god forbid) a sense of humour.
This is the first of the sequels that seems to remember the original small screen source material to some extent and swaps out the Ethan Hunt-centric focus in favour of a team working together on missions to achieve their goal. There's some personal backstory elements involving both Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner's characters to add emotional heft, otherwise Bird keeps his eyes focused on the action and barrels forward at a brisk pace that demands you keep up. It's episodic, but each of the pieces has been executed with such efficiency and confidence in and of themselves that they will be remembered long after one realises they don't necessarily add up to much.
What's great is how much the film gets right. After a very brief but eye-catching prologue, the film opens with a prison escape sequence that shows precisely what good hands we're in. Right away the intense but often playful tone is set, a rescue operation based on precise timing quickly goes haywire - partly due to circumstance, partly to Ethan's improvising. From the start our heroes are essentially on the back foot, forced to think fast to catch up with a villain who is not only well-prepared but has taken their involvement into account and adjusted accordingly.
This is cleverly demonstrated with the various gadgets in use. The IMF is equipped with some technological marvels, in fact the film's single best scene involves a projector screen trick in a Kremlin hallway that is jaw-dropping in its cleverness and elicits a good laugh. Once the group is disavowed after being framed for a bombing, all their backup and tech support is gone and they have to make do with what they have on hand. As a result the gadgets become glitchy, something which adds to the suspense of various sequences in the second and third act.
Robert Elswit's cinematography, combined with the IMAX photography, is superb. Each location is used to maximum effect via beautiful wide shots, fluid motion and impressive compositions. Though there's the odd gratuitous computer generated effect such as an approaching sandstorm and one bit involving a car crash, most of the movie stays refreshingly practical with the kind of real life camera work and ambitious stunt execution you have to admire.
It's actually quite brazen of the filmmakers to follow up the Burj Khalifa climbing sequence involving full use of the IMAX aperture with a chase scene through a sand storm where the lack of visibility is the key to the entire suspense of the sequence working. If there's one minor niggle with the look it's that some of the one-on-one fisticuffs do fall into the trap of that quick cut Paul Greengrass-style editing, but thankfully it is kept fairly minimal. There is also only one real use of the trademark facial mask, but the reveal with it seems an afterthought.
The ensemble is well cast with each of the team members given enough time to be distinctive and also play off each other. Cruise is the central player but never overwhelms the movie, and more importantly seems to be engaged with the material in a way we haven't really seen in years. While he was Q-lite in MI3, Simon Pegg's role here is greatly expanded to be more like a 'Chloe' to Cruise's 'Jack Bauer' - tech support with a character-centric comic relief element that actually fits. Better still is the comedy often comes not from clever quips but from Cruise's body language reactions to Pegg's over-enthusiasm - the two make for an unconventional but strangely effective buddy pairing.
Jeremy Renner adds strong support, complimenting rather than clashing with Cruise's style. Part reluctant hero with a personal secret, part audience mouthpiece to ask the rational questions in this rather insane world of wild heroics, he makes himself an essential part of the team without being a carbon copy of other characters we've seen before. The gorgeous Paula Patton rounds out the group, playing a woman with a strong sense of professionalism and one who can believably kick ass with the best of them. They also thankfully make her human - she makes mistakes but is quick on her feet and isn't afraid of using her sex appeal to get the job done.
The rest of the cast is more of a mixed bag. "Lost" hunk Josh Holloway has only a few scenes but leaves an impression with a vital part that kicks off the entire film. Tom Wilkinson has only one scene but he delivers, as do two quick cameos which help give the whole movie a nice upbeat ending. Anil Kapoor has fun as a sleazy media magnate, as does Miraj Grbic as a prisoner who ultimately helps out Ethan.
On the flip side Lea Seydoux as a ruthless assassin seems oddly miscast, never convincingly portraying the lethal threat she's supposed to be. Darren Shahlavi as a Russian intelligence officer in pursuit of Cruise and co. has a fun first scene, but the role is the film's most obviously unnecessary one. His actions, from a brutal van attack to his sudden appearance in Dubai, raise some minor questions about the plot that the film never really answers. Samuli Edelmann as a well-groomed henchman is more about muscle than talking, but handles his action scenes well. Nyqvist is fine in his few scenes (and seemingly quite good in the combat scenes), but thankfully he stays offscreen as much as possible which makes the threat of his actions more effective.
Though it comes off as a standalone entry, there's franchise laying groundwork going on here. We finally have a team that not only works well together but one you'd really like to see again in another film as each gets a decent enough amount of time to impart an impression, while working well together as a whole. There are quick throwback mentions to the past films, particularly the third, but it's not necessary to have seen them to enjoy it. The film's pacing is amongst the best I've seen in years, almost never losing its momentum thanks to character & expository elements being blended into the action. Yet it also never throws up so much at the screen that it all becomes white noise.
Bird and his entire crew deliver a product so smooth, glossy and extremely well made that even the sternest audiences will have to admire both its sleekness and efficiency. It's not a film of great depth to be certain which will probably hinder its appeal or rewatchability with some. What it does demonstrate though is how great even a familiar formula can be when handled with the proper care. Surprisingly one of the studio tentpole highlights of the year, and certainly the most satisfying action movie in many months.