I was introduced to Mission: Impossible at a young age. I found the TV series to be fascinating, in the way it used the same aesthetic and atmosphere of James Bond but felt far closer to home. It had cool gadgets, good chases, and decent characters. The movies have never quite measured up to the source material, and while I admire the audacity of the first film to wreck absolute havoc on the lives of the characters, they’ve felt a bit safe and generic since then. Ghost Protocol seemed to promise a return to former Mission: Impossible standards while looking fresh and crisp.

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Ethan Hunt is in a Russian prison, and two members of the Impossible Mission Force break him out. He’s needed for a delicate operation in the very heart of the country’s government. It turns out, however, that his team’s been set up by a brilliant but insane physicist to take the fall for a bombing at the Kremlin. Faced with a ton of international fallout and the resurrected fear of war, the United States quickly shuts down the IMF, and the President initiates Ghost Protocol. Hunt and his team, along with a newcomer who claims to be a mere analyst, must track down the physicist and prevent the release of nuclear launch codes, lest the world become an atomic wasteland.

So while it’s not Russia being the bad guys, there’s still a lot of this film that feels like Cold War stuff. In that way, it’s similar to the Angelina Jolie vehicle Salt. Both are technically well-executed thrillers, but Mission Impossible goes for more of a straightforward, high action route rather than opting for grit or darkness. Besides, this is a plot we’ve all seen play out before, so the film has to do something new to keep our attention for its 133 minute run time.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Yeah, that’s one way to keep our attention.

What it opts to do, and what I like about it, is that its focus is more on the characters and how they deal with their circumstances, rather than the tech or the chases overwhelm us. I wouldn’t say it’s an entirely character-driven piece, as more often than not circumstances from the plot are what move us along. However, the moments we do get between the characters aren’t badly written. Banter is believable and the characters tend to react to things in realistic ways. I also like the fact that while romance is hinted at in one instance, it’s neither forced nor taken as a foregone conclusion. The filmmakers do a good job of making the team feel like people, rather than cyphers, even if Simon Pegg and Paula Patton get the short end of the stick in terms of character development.

Unfortunately, our main foursome have to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to getting us to care about the story. The antagonist is so generically Bond-villain bad it’s difficult to key into the threat he represents outside of a general dislike of the prospect of nuclear war. As much as the plot is rooted in the current geo-political theater, the Cold War is over and the spectre of atomic annihilation is not the bogeyman it once was. There’s also the fact that Michael Nyqvist is completely wasted in the role. He was very good in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (the original one) and while he does what he can with this mouth-foaming megalomaniacal drivel, it’s just a bit hard to swallow, especially when his hitherto-unknown martial arts skills appear for the climax.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Beautiful people.

There’s also the fact that the plot relies almost entirely on coincidence and contrivance to stay in motion. While the tech never outshines the characters, its functionality, or more often lack thereof, is the cause of the characters needing to act rather than the characters being the vector for change themselves. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s there. The technology robs the characters of their agency and the story suffers for it. It’s a shame, too, because here and there we see good character beats that would make a good movie in and of themselves, instead of just being the saving grace of a well-shot above-average espionage thriller.

Stuff I Liked: The IMF team has good chemistry. Action is well-shot and does not rely on camera tricks to highten tension. It’s nice to see locales that don’t often get used for films like this, such as Dubai and India.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: I felt bad for Michael Nyqvist as he’s given little to do other than be a dime-store Blofeld until the final scene where he suddenly becomes an excellent fighter. Technology failing once at an inopportune time is kind of funny, but it happens so often that it becomes almost predictable. Plot contrivance is the fuel that drives the film instead of character development.
Stuff I Loved: The banter between Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner. The prevalence of the Mission: Impossible theme in the score made me happy. The opening operation of sneaking into the Kremlin was very well done. Little moments like Renner’s character hesitating to jump, Pegg’s overall enthusiasm, and the old phone booth failing to self-destruct after giving Tom Cruise his mission.

Bottom Line: Brad Bird’s debut in live-action filmmaking is by no means bad. It’s fun to watch and not without good moments, especially in the character department, but it’s not terribly memorable. While it’s much better than the previous two Mission: Impossible films, a little more time playing down the plot contrivances while increasing the moments of character construction would have made it even more compelling to watch. As it is, you could do worse for espionage action films to watch, but you could also do better.