Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to skip all of the potential Oscar-caliber fare out there and go for some straight-up sheer entertainment.  With Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the bar for exciting megawatt blockbuster couldn’t be set any higher—literally.

Tom Cruise returns to his globetrotting ways as IMF super-spy Ethan Hunt, on the run with three other fugitive agents after a bombing at the Kremlin building has the team framed as terrorists, and causes intense friction between the U.S. and Russia.  The President initiates Ghost Protocol to shut down the entire IMF Agency.  Only Hunt and his team can stop the real terrorist, Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), an extremist bent on worldwide nuclear destruction.

From the film’s opening, the excitement kicks off and rarely lets up, delivering relenting pulse-pounding action sequences.  This is Cruise’s most accomplished action film to date, and that’s saying something.  The man, regardless of his tarnished off-screen persona, is one heck of a performer.  If this fourth installment of the M:I franchise doesn’t reignite his star power, I don’t know what will.  At nearly 50-years-old, Cruise delivers a physical performance that is often stunning.  Bruised and tossed around the screen, the man flies around this film like a winged insect—running, kicking, punching, ascending, flipping, falling, flailing, you name it.  The film could have been titled Run Tommy Run.

And what about those impressive action sequences?  This is a wall-to-wall assault of a movie, but the action never becomes tedious or dull.  It totally and completely serves the story, keeping the plot in a constant motion, and invigorating this franchise with a heap of fresh and interesting possibilities.  Credit Brad Bird, a former Pixar director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, for making a live-action cartoon that never once feels cartoonish.  The picture is simultaneously gritty and relaxed.  Bird finds just the right tone for his movie, returning the series to a team-oriented picture rather than just another Tom Cruise vehicle.

Actors Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, and the comedic Simon Pegg round out the team quite nicely.  Everyone plays a crucial role to the events of the film.  I was not at all surprised to find this fresh change.  Cruise has consistently made every Mission: Impossible film entirely unique and different, utilizing a new director for each installment, for better or worse.  Brian De Palma delivered a twisty plot with the first mission.  John Woo excelled with balletic action sequences that took precedence over the storyline in M:I-2.  J.J. Abrams delved into a personal quest for Ethan Hunt against a cutthroat adversary in the third outing.  For Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird seeks to tip the scales for extreme blockbuster entertainment, gaining top-dollar out of every shot, and reinvigorating the team spirit of the franchise.  Even with a villain in Hendricks that seems more like an afterthought than a real threat, unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman’s menace from the 2006 film, M:I-4 still fires on all cylinders because Bird keeps the threat immediate rather than looming.

I was treated to this film in IMAX format.  30 minutes of the film was shot natively in IMAX.  The towering picture for certain sequences could described as none other than absolutely stunning.  The sequence featuring Cruise ascending the Burj Khalifa tower using questionable suction gloves is a scene that will be talked about for a long time.  Experiencing it in IMAX added to the intensity and vertigo.  Rather unbelievably, the scene was apparently filmed on the actual tower with Cruise actually dangling from it 130-some stories above ground.  How will another sequel top this?  I don’t know.  I’m calling mission impossible on that one.

As for this franchise, it’s reached an incredible high with Bird at the helm.  The series has never been better.  Action movies in general have rarely been better.  And that is no easy feat, as this somewhat underrated series has consistently delivered the goods over the last 15 years.  Lackluster villain complaint aside, this Mission is probably the most entertaining film all of 2011 has to offer, and you’d be crazier than Tom Cruise to miss it.

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The Iron Giant

Before Brad Bird was launched into superstardom (directorially speaking, that is) following the release of The Incredibles, he was a creative talent floating around Hollywood with a penchant for animation and slightly quirky stories.  He was a writer and animator for The Simpsons, a consultant for the oddball animated comedy The Critic, and was even involved in a few projects with Steven Spielberg.  With the release of The Iron Giant, his animation-meets-CGI opus from 1999, he was given a chance to show the world what he and his rich imagination could do given enough time to develop a full-length storyline.  The results were good, but met with a few flaws that keep this film from being among the truly classic works of animation.

At its core, The Iron Giant is a story about a boy and his friend.  This boy, named Hogarth, like the protagonists of so many of these kinds of films, is misunderstood by adults, has few companions at school, and spends too much time lost in his own imagination.  He’s a bit Calvinlike, in some respects, though not as mean-spirited towards authority.  At any rate, it’s no surprise that when an unearthly visitor crash-lands near the boy’s small hometown in Maine, that Hogarth forms an immediate bond with him.  Hogarth and the Iron Giant (voiced rather tenderly by the venerable Vin Diesel) spend much of the film simply existing together:  playing, relaxing, having adventures, and keeping their secret friendship away from adults and authority figures.  Much of the film is a paint-by-numbers exercise in retreading past stories, though:  Hogarth’s mom is too busy to pay attention to her son.  One man, a government investigator, knows something is going on with Hogarth and is determined to find out.  One adult does believe Hogarth and helps him out.  Soon enough the secret is out and the authorities do find out.  Everyone freaks, people panic, the Army gets involved, and…well, you get the point.

The Brad Bird quirkiness comes from the sheer nature of the story: a kid befriends a 100-foot tall metal behemoth.  It’s a bit different from typical Disney fare, you might say.  But I had a hard time buying the friendship and the isolation from all adults.  Early on in the film the giant causes a train to crash, and this should have been a pivotal turning point in the story.  But for the most part people just continue in their daily lives afterwards while Hogarth and his pet giant continue to frolic about in the woods unnoticed, and no one in town (save for the savvy investigator) bothering to ask any questions.  I can give animated films a lot of leeway and wiggle room, but I just wasn’t able to let go of some of these types of plot issues.

Like Titan A.E., I get the feeling that this film started out as a fantastic idea, but something got lost in the translation to celluloid.  It’s entertaining but not engrossing.  Interesting but not engaging.  And the emotional core never really came through to me (Hogarth actually says “I love you” to the giant late in the film–a cringe-worthy moment that felt entirely forced and was entirely unbelievable, and seemed like the filmmakers knew they had failed to create a true emotional connection between the two characters and at that point decided to just go for broke.)  I suppose if I was younger the movie would have been better, but seeing it for the first time as a guy who’s almost thirty, it just wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be.

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