Opinions vary slightly on Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible franchise, but they generally go like this: Brian DePalma’s film is fantastic, John Woo’s follow-up is an epic abomination, and JJ Abrams’ third entry is an interesting but otherwise pedestrian effort. That’s the general consensus seemingly held by the majority of folks online.

But that consensus is missing the point.

The series has actually gotten more entertaining with each new installment. No, seriously. The dramatic quality of each is arguable and the levels of stupidity have fluctuated (although they peaked with Woo’s film), but for sheer entertainment value each successive film has been bigger, more thrilling, and more technically impressive than the last.

And happily, that trend has continued with Brad Bird’s slightly goofy, deliriously fun and exciting as hell Ghost Protocol. It’s the best summer movie of the year… even if it did just open two weeks into December.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) sits in a Russian prison for a handful of unsanctioned murders, but it’s not long before he’s busted out by ex-IMF teammate Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and newcomer Jane Carter (Paula Patton). His escape is followed by an infiltration at the Kremlin itself, but when the building is bombed a high-ranking US government official informs Hunt that the IMF has been disavowed and that he’s a wanted man.

Hunt and his rescuers are forced to work alone in order to search for the bomber, cleanse the agency’s reputation and save the world from nuclear annihilation. It’s truly an impossible mission for just three agents, but luckily they’re also graced with the presence of an analyst named William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) who brings their number to four. Together they’ll race from Moscow to Mumbai with a stop in Dubai for one of the best-looking set-pieces to grace theaters in years, and the audience can’t help but go along with the ride wearing ear to ear smiles.

The scene that’s already garnered the most advance buzz is Hunt’s scaling of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and the praise is extremely well deserved. Hunt, and by extension Cruise who performs these stunts himself, dangles outside and climbs the exterior of the building thousands of feet high, and the visuals are simply breathtaking to behold on the big screen. Other sequences of note include a foot/car chase through a sand storm and an extended fight in a high tech parking garage. Bird captures the kinetics with a fine balance between spectacle and intimacy always ensuring the action is visible and not confused by rapid-fire editing.

Cruise has been counted down and out more times than probably any other actor, but he comes roaring back to life here with a strong performance that carries the heart of the film while still allowing the others to shine. Pegg gets most of the film’s best lines, and newcomer Renner proves himself more than capable as an action star (which bodes well for the upcoming Bourne film), but the real eye-opener here is Patton. Yes, yes, she’s a beauty, but she’s also a fine actress in scenes both dramatic and action oriented. Unlike Zoe Saldana or Angelina Jolie, Patton is a believable ass-kicker who I would gladly watch again and again. In slow motion.

All is not perfect with Bird’s first foray into live action though. He stretches the reach of physics almost as much as he did in The Incredibles, which of course was animated, but that’s to be expected in this and other big, summer action films. The real issues are due to the script by Josh Applebaum and André Nemec. The action beats and character work are mostly solid, but it completely fizzles with its villain. Michael Nyqvist seems capable of imbuing his genius madman with real menace and appeal, but he’s barely given anything to really do and even less to say. And his last onscreen act is simply nonsensical in the extreme.

The team’s status as a rogue group left flapping in the wind is driven home a bit too frequently with dialogue, but they never truly feel like they’re wanting for much. They easily get everywhere they need to go with changes of perfectly tailored clothes, money and more, and while we do see their equipment break down it becomes a running joke of sorts more than a legitimate hardship. On the narrative front, the film lacks the emotional punch present in M:I3. There Hunt was fighting for his life and his love (Michelle Monaghan)… here he’s looking for a really important briefcase.

It’s these issues and more, including some terribly cheesy CGI during the Kremlin explosion and a weakly written epilogue, that should mark the film with a B letter grade, except, and I say this as a (semi) professional… I’ll be goddamned if Ghost Protocol isn’t a shit-ton of fun to watch from beginning to end.

It’s worth noting that the film is in IMAX theaters now and opens in traditional theaters next Friday. Unlike the choice between 3D and 2D this is really a no-brainer… if at all possible go see this in IMAX. The Dubai tower scene alone is worth the price of admission, but you also get the added bonus of a cleavage battle between Patton and an assassin played by Lea Seydoux that erupts into an old-school brawl between the two.

Whatever you decide you can’t go wrong with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. The action scenes are massively enjoyable and will leave you breathless and spent, the banter is lively and fun, and Cruise proves once again why he’s the last real movie star left standing. Laugh at his off-screen antics if you must, but the guy puts in 100% as both performer and producer here, and it’s the audience that benefits. You’ll exit the theater having already chosen to accept the next Mission: Impossible.

The Upside: Stunning action sequences, most notably the Dubai tower scene; Paula Patton and Lea Seydoux cleavage; Tom Cruise makes Ethan Hunt believable action hero; Paula Patton and Lea Seydoux cat fight; supporting cast of characters adds charisma and feels important enough to prevent this from being a one-man show

The Downside: Some gaps in logic and intelligence as expected with the series; dodgy CGI in Kremlin explosion; incredibly weak villain; story lacks emotional punch thanks in part to epilogue; opening credits; too much time spent essentially chasing a briefcase

On the Side: Michael Nyqvist’s co-star from the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace, is also making her Hollywood debut this week with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows


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