‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ Leaves You Hanging From Dizzying Heights

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol poster

Writer’s note: This review was written back in 2011.

The “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps getting better and better which each successive sequel, something few other franchises can ever lay claim to. The first one directed by Brian De Palma had a confusing storyline but spectacular action set pieces. The second one had a plot which was easier to follow and the signature ballet action sequences we’ve come to love and expect from John Woo. Part three gave us the directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, had a stronger plot, a very effective villain in Phillip Seymour Hoffman and ended up remembering what made the original television series work so well. Each movie in this series has its own unique identity which allowed this franchise to have a longevity we didn’t expect it to have. Of course, with Tom Cruise’s antics upstaging “Mission: Impossible III,” it started to seem his time as Ethan Hunt had run its course.

But Cruise is back for more, and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” turns out to be the best of one yet as it features some of the most ingenious action scenes I’ve seen in a movie for quite some time. It also has the added benefit of having been filmed in part with IMAX cameras which gives certain scenes a highly realistic look and feel to where you are right in the center of the action. Just when I thought this franchise had ran out of steam, Cruise and director Brad Bird (making his live action debut) thrill us in a highly unexpected way.

It appears Hunt’s retirement from the IMF after “Mission: Impossible III” didn’t last long, and we find him at this movie’s beginning in a Moscow prison throwing a rock at the wall like he’s Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” But he is soon sprung from his cell with the help of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and we find out he was imprisoned for a mission gone wrong, and he has since become estranged from his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) for mysterious reasons. Just like Jack Bauer in “24,” Hunt can’t stay away from what he does best when danger rears its ugly head.

After their great escape, Hunt and Dunn infiltrate the Kremlin in an effort to locate files of a nemesis with the code name of Cobalt. This mission, however, goes horribly wrong when the Kremlin is blown to smithereens, and the entire IMF is disavowed as a result. Hunt and his team are forced to take blame for the attack, but they are allowed to escape in order to locate Cobalt and stop a nuclear war. This time, Hunt and company have no support to rely on as they forced to work on their own.

As with the previous entry, Cruise lets the other actors shine as he has realized Hunt doesn’t need to do everything himself. Seeing Benji get upgraded from techno nerd to field agent is great fun, and Pegg is a real treat to watch here as he becomes much more than just comic relief. Paula Patton embodies her agent character of Jane Carter convincingly and gets to kick some serious ass in various scenes, one of which has her taking on a female assassin in something more than just your average catfight.

The best addition, however, to this “Mission: Impossible” movie is Jeremy Renner who plays William Brandt, a chief analyst for the IMF. Renner, whose career has been on a major upswing thanks to his performances in “The Hurt Locker” and “The Town,” is a great addition to this franchise, and he even gets a big action set piece as William proves to know far more than he lets on. His secrets threaten to be devastating if revealed, and Renner does excellent work in showing the turmoil Brandt endures as he is faced with a whole other kind of impossible mission.

The main antagonist this time out is Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist from the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) who is bent on starting a nuclear war so he can bring about the next evolution of the human race. Nyqvist brings a strong villainy to this role which makes you sneer at his presence whenever he’s onscreen. However, he’s upstaged by Léa Seydoux who portrays French assassin Sabine Moreau. Her cold glare penetrates your inner defenses with little difficulty, and you have to put on your best poker face in her presence to stay alive (and that may not even be enough).

But the real star of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is director Brad Bird himself. You’d think stepping outside the world of animation where he made “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “The Iron Giant” would leave him at a spectacular disadvantage as what you can get away with in that realm of filmmaking does not necessarily translate as well to live action. But it’s clear Bird allows nothing to stand in his way in terms of what can be accomplished, and he comes up with one amazing action sequence after another.

The one sequence which needs to be acknowledged above others is when Cruise scales the outside of the Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest building in the world. The IMAX cameras give this moment a reality like no other, and that feeling of intense vertigo is hard to ignore. Seriously, I felt like I was outside of that building with Cruise as he climbed up it with nothing but suction gloves. If there is a more intense action sequence with a character hanging on for dear life from one of the world’s tallest buildings, it certainly didn’t come to mind while I watched this movie. I had trouble getting to sleep afterwards because that crazy stunt was still on my mind and would not let me be.

There’s about a half hour or so of footage shot in IMAX, and Bird makes use of this format to great effect. Aside from Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building, there’s a scene of the Kremlin exploding which literally takes your breath away. While many still complain of IMAX feeling like a rip off with its high ticket prices, it’s worth the extra money in a way 3D could only dream of being at this point.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is a big surprise as this franchise looked like it had already hit its peak to where another sequel seemed needless. But Cruise and company successfully revive it by giving us characters to care about and root for, and they outdo themselves with stunts even more amazing than what we saw previously. Regardless of what you may think of Cruise as a person these days (many of my friends can’t stand him), he still puts on a good show even as he grows visibly older. Just when you thought he was out, he pulls himself back in!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Michelle Monaghan and Ron Livingston on the Making of ‘Fort Bliss’

Fort Bliss movie poster

Claudia Myers’ “Fort Bliss” deals with something we don’t see much in movies: the challenges of being a female soldier and a single mom at the same time. The movie stars Michelle Monaghan as U.S. army medic Maggie Swann who has just returned home after serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan. But instead of arriving to greet her son Paul (Oakes Fegley) at the air base, she instead finds him back at home with his dad, her ex-husband Richard (Ron Livingston), and stepmom, and he doesn’t really remember her much. From there, Maggie works to repair the bond between her and Paul before her duties in the military threaten to tear them apart yet again.

Both Monaghan and Livingston dropped by the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Fort Bliss’” press day, and it was fascinating to hear about their experiences making this particular movie. This was a very low budget production, so there wasn’t much time for anyone to waste. I always wondered how actors deal with the lack of time because we are led to believe they are used to working on movies which allow them to take a nap in their trailers between takes while the crew sets up for the next shot. But while having fewer resources can seriously affect some actors, Monaghan and Livingston did not let any limitations stand in their way.

“There’s something really exciting about the idea that they just don’t have time to micromanage you in your performance, so there’s a lot more responsibility to just show up,” Livingston said. “Your first take on it is gonna be the take that goes into the movie by and large unless it’s really egregious because there’s not a lot of time to waste tinkering with it, you know?”

“It is true that you don’t have a lot of time to play with it,” Monaghan said. “I think that’s why the prep time becomes so essential for an independent film. It’s your responsibility as an actor or a director or a writer to really play your part. You can’t just turn up and expect all these experts to show you something on the day. That’s really, really important. That’s a part of our job, and also we shot this movie in 21 days. It was so incredibly exciting because we were living, eating and breathing it. We shot in two different locations in and around Los Angeles and then Fort Bliss (in El Paso, Texas) with the help of the Army. With all their resources, the production value looks by far more than what we had for it.

“21 days with combat sequences is pretty incredible,” Livingston noted.

Again, I imagine some actors would have preferred to have more time to prepare for the roles, but they don’t always have that opportunity. When it comes down to it, they have to work with what they are given instead of complain about what’s working against them. For Monaghan, the fact there wasn’t a lot of down time on the set of “Fort Bliss” didn’t affect her too much.

“There’s not (a lot of down time), but I always tend to find that I feel the strongest about performances in general when they’re shot in that way because you’re in it,” Monaghan said. “You are in the thick of it, and to say that I go to sleep at night and dream about the character and the role, you are. It’s 21 days where you’re attacking it for that period of time, and you don’t have time to think about it. Good things tend to come from that.”

One of the best scenes in “Fort Bliss” comes at the beginning when Maggie and dozens of other troops are returning home from Afghanistan. It looked like the production succeeded in hiring the best background extras they could find as they looked so incredibly enthusiastic in welcoming the soldiers home, but it turns out there was a lot more authenticity involved than we realized.

“When you see the coming home scenes at the beginning, it was truly people of soldier’s families, military wives, husbands, and children that two days prior had just welcomed one of those big planes home,” Monaghan said. “Fort Bliss sent out an email saying, ‘Would you guys come back two days later to shoot a scene?’ So they brought back all their signs and it was amazing. The military band was there and even the Harley Davison guys came back and all the former vets with their bikes and everything. Everybody was so proud to be there. That’s so profound to be able to have that experience and to feel that energy of what it’s like and everybody hugging one another. To be able to have that access and that resource was so invaluable. We constantly had that throughout the process of filming. I say this film has been so blessed, but it has. I’m so grateful to everybody in how far reaching the efforts that everybody has gone to.”

“Fort Bliss” may be coming in under the radar, but it is truly deserving of your attention. It deals with the female perspective of war and how women still have a stigma attached to them whenever they serve in the military. Many expect women to stay at home and be a mother to their children instead of fighting wars overseas, but life continues to be more complicated than we expect it to be, and nothing is ever that simple.

You can also check out this video interview I did with Monaghan and Livingston which I did for the website We Got This Covered.