“If the Secretary wanted me out of there, it must be pretty bad out here.” – Ethan Hunt
As a rule, the longer a franchise runs, the more stale it gets, and the easier it is to spot the moment where it peaked.
Even with exceptions, the rule remains. Harry Potter peaked with the third and fourth book, and with the second and third film. Fast & Furious peaked with Five, Six, and Seven. The career of M. Night Shyamalan peaked with his first three films. James Bond peaked with the entire Connery era. Resident Evil peaked with the fourth game and fourth film. Star Wars peaked with Knights of the Old Republic II. Twilight peaked at no point in the books and for approximately half an hour in the latter middle of the final film when it turned into a parody of itself. And Avatar peaked with a future movie we’ll hopefully never actually see.
But Mission: Impossible has stubbornly managed to stay at its peak for three films now, with no signs of cascading down. I’m not one to root for a film to fail (despite how I sound), but I may have to start acting like the second and third films were bad (they aren’t) as the price for liking the new ones so much. After all, nothing can be good if there isn’t something that very clearly isn’t. That’s Brad Bird’s philosophy in a nutshell, woven into Ghost Protocol like an unlit fuse.
I didn’t intend for there to be this many action movies in the Ten-For-Ten, but I don’t really view Ghost Protocol as one. Oh sure, it has plenty of it, but the second, third, and sixth film all do a “better” job with the action genre formula. The second film may have overused the masks, but its charm stems from its sheer absurdity and there remains no shot in the entire franchise that matches the exploding sunglasses. The third film is pointlessly mysterious, but it restores the franchise back to its basics, setting it on its path of continuity that led it to its current peak. And the sixth film is just a textbook example of how to craft action with good writing.
But of course, none of these things would work or elevate this particular franchise above any other, especially as genre films of the 2000s and 2010s became more and more fantastical, supernatural, and comic. The magic at the center of these films comes from the crazy guy at the center. The Steve McQueen of the modern era and one of the last true Hollywood movie stars (alongside Bruce Willis, Liam Neeson, Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron, Ryan Reynolds, and Dwayne Johnson) – Tom Cruise; the reason to watch a Mission: Impossible film is to watch Tom Cruise perform. Not just act – perform – running fast, stunts even professionals won’t do, and showing off his mad helicopter flying skills in a film series whose title and premise alone are all an audience needs to make sense of it.
Several months ago, I wrote a ranking list that dissected the entire James Bond franchise. One of the things I left out, but kept in my mind as something worth noting in a future segment is the fact that James Bond as a movie doesn’t make sense unless the audience has come to see not so much a movie as an exciting world navigated with swagger by an attractive star. This was largely lost as the franchise continued past Connery, and its death was sentenced and carried out by the Daniel Craig era, even with two of the films being quite good. Now James Bond is just another movie series with no distinguishing quality of any kind beyond the familiarity with his name, and anyone nostalgic for its better days is mocked for it by the films themselves.
Ghost Protocol reinvigorates and restores the euphoria and sex appeal of the James Bond film at the peak of that franchise. The Mission: Impossible films have always been Bond rivals. But this one transcends them all for those very reasons. It blends Cruise’s age-defying magnetism (more on that in a bit), beautiful settings with on-location cinematography, Brad Bird’s creativity with designing action setpieces, and Paula Patton as perhaps the sexiest woman of the decade to create not only the best Mission: Impossible film, but the best Bond film since Goldeneye, and also the greatest IMAX blockbuster not filmed by Christopher Nolan.
Cruise’s career took a conscious turn with the 2010s. At the age of 49, it was now an open question as to how long he could continue credibly doing action. He had spent the 2000s decade playing age-appropriate desperate fathers in Spielberg movies, a war veteran in The Last Samurai and salt & pepper haired hitman in Collateral, a Republican senator in Lions for Lambs (one of his best roles ever), and a fat, balding Hollywood producer in Tropic Thunder. In the 2010s decade his roles shifted from characters reflective of his dramatic reach to characters reflective of his youthful and physical capability. He began playing mighty Jacks like Reacher and Harper (Oblivion), and in Rock of Ages (“Jaxx”). He put himself in powered armor for Edge of Tomorrow and literally turned into a god in The Mummy.
But Ethan Hunt always brought out his best, and Ghost Protocol features by far his greatest reintroduction as a character. In each film, Cruise introduces Hunt in a way that tells you what the story will be about. The prison sequence evokes not just his skills, but also his loyalty. Loyalty and redemption are the two major themes of the story; each character grappling with a past failure to protect someone.
Every action and infiltration sequence sparkles with the ingenuity of Cruise, Bird, and the actors. Bird had never directed a live-action feature before. His fight, stunt, and chase sequences feel colorful, lively, and animated. A sequence that stands out in my mind is Cruise chasing Winstrom away out the back of the Burj Khalifa while the sandstorm chases both of them. An overhead helicopter shot tracks them like a news crew as they sprint under a building. Both are hidden beneath it, but the camera passes over the building and shows the shadow of the storm becoming larger and larger. When we see them again, they’ve both slowed slightly from the fatigue, and the surface is darkened with the storm overwhelming them. No doubt IMAX camera techniques of this kind influenced Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla three years later.
Though wind is first a terrible enemy, it later proves a strange friend. When Agent Brandt has to jump down a 25-foot chute with a giant fan, Benji says “and I catch you,” as if it’s just another day. The sequence is gripping even if it isn’t as interesting at the Indian party with Patton’s Agent Carter. Such a varied picture, full of movement and grace in every frame. For all of them, it’s just another day at the Impossible Missions Force office. But the urgency with which they go about their actions (and their mistakes) stems from the redemption they seek for those they failed to protect in the past. At least three characters discuss this openly with each other, and it gives the ending that slightly extra boost of uplift that previous films didn’t always have.
Action movies are and have always been my comfort genre – a fact no doubt made clear by the previous movies discussed in this segment. Over the past four decades, Tom Cruise has given us some of the best we could ever hope to appreciate.
For all we know, he may only be getting started.
V’s Ten for Ten (2022)
#1: “48 Hrs.” (1982)
#2: “Battle Royale” (2000)
#3: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949)
#4: “Rope” (1948)
#5: “Malcolm X” (1992)
#6: “6 Underground” (2019)
#7: “Broken Blossoms” (1919)
#9: “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935)
#10: “Escape From Alcatraz” (1979)