The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article The first Mission Impossible film was released in 1996, the same year that saw the first James Bond film to star Pierce Brosnan. It represented something of a rethink for Cruise, and was seen by many as a vanity project. This was the first film for Cruise’s own fledgling production company (Cruise/Wagner) and his first as producer. If you remember it as two or three impressive action sequences and a confusing but ultimately forgettable plot stringing them together, that would be about right. DePalma spent time crafting the action set pieces meticulously, but a filmable script was still not ready, despite (or perhaps because of) a large number of scriptwriters being drafted in to do rewrites. Despite the bravura élan of those sequences (Prague, wires, train), the film remains a modest effort with a good theme tune. Ethan Hunt could just as easily have been called Thom Kroose and nothing would have changed.

The sequels have increasingly attempted to make Hunt into something else. John Woo’s particular brand of bombast jarred with the modesty of the original, but Cruise seems more keen on letting his hair down than on creating a consistent character. The hair was short once more for J.J. Abrams’ third entry (call it a trilogy if you dare), but despite getting something like a decent villain with Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film felt workmanlike and once more incredibly forgettable. Now, in Ghost Protocol, Ethan Hunt is gifted with a personal life and reservations, channelling something of Jack Bauer’s angst from the TV series 24.

In the original Mission Impossible TV series, the main man was not important. Partly as a result of disagreements, the original lead character of the TV series Dan Briggs played by Steven Hill was replaced after the first season by the character Jim Phelps (Peter Graves). There was no explanation of the change given in the plot and there didn’t really need to be. The team itself was rotated with regular guest stars eventually becoming permanent additions to the cast - Martin Landau, for instance, played Rolllin Hand. But when Landau was replaced by Leonard Nimoy, Nimoy’s character was basically the same. In fact, the whole point was that there weren’t characters as such, just roles - jobs to be filled, things to be done. Landau was the actor and master of disguise, so that’s what Nimoy’s character replaced. Character itself, as in an inner emotional life, was laughably irrelevant.

The first cinematic version self-consciously betrayed the original, by making Jim Phelps (Jon Voigt), into a traitor and adversary for the new young team leader. The opening scene features a loving mock up of the kind of cold war subtext which the original series lived and breathed. The revelation that it is a creaky construct wearing dodgy moustaches opens the film up to new possibilities, a post-Cold War world in which enemies are more likely to come from behind the curtains than behind the Iron Curtain.

This fourth instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise starts back in the USSR. Ethan Hunt is imprisoned and a team has been sent to get him out. The breakout is complicated by Hunt’s insistence on rescuing another prisoner who is under the impression that Hunt is Russian. From the breakout we move to a break-in as the team infiltrate the Kremlin, following a lead from Hunt.

Since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the winter of 1991, Russia has managed to retain its bogeyman status, albeit in different and subtler forms. In fact, with the country’s chaos, the rise of criminal gangs, and particularly the grim aftermath of the war in Chechnya, Russian villains are as much in vogue as they ever were in the days of Rambo. The difference now is that their villainy is no longer ideological. Rosa Klebb and SMERSH have given way to billionaires and the Russian mafia. Instead of steely-eyed ideologues and die-hard communists, our heroes are pitted against an uglified rampant free market capitalism and a resurgent nationalism.

Goldeneye (1996) showed which way the wind was blowing. The satellite technology is stolen from the hapless and crumbling super power by a criminal syndicate called Janus. James Bond initially seeks the help of the cuddly and amusing Russian mafia head Robbie Coltrane, following a long tradition of Bond enlisting local bandits to aid him. The real villain is an ex-British agent (006 played by Sean Bean). This allows us to have the Russian uniforms, the Moscow scenery, the villainous accents, whilst at the same time happily admitting that the only real threat comes from within, from our own dissatisfaction and fraternal rivalries. The Russians are a cipher to that. As the years progress, however, they become more openly threatening. The second Bourne film featured an FSB agent (played by Karl Urban) as a villain, and the activities of the Russian mafia in London were explored by David Cronenberg in Eastern Promises (2007). The FSB, who are basically the retooled KGB, also feature.

Furthermore, the resort to Russia has come in the context of a reimagining of Eastern Europe and particularly former Soviet republics as moral sink holes. Perhaps it’s because it allows filmmakers to indulge in all the fun of racism without being accused of actual racism because the villains are white. From the schlock horror of Hostel (2005) to the sex slave industry that serves as the backdrop of Liam Neeson’s Taken (2008), Eastern Europe is depicted as hostile territory, populated by vicious predatory rapists and homicidal maniacs, a shorthand for everything we fear. The recent A Serbian Film (2010) insists on its own national identity as a crucible for all sorts terribleness.

Ghost Protocol seeks the old balancing act whereby the villain is actually a rogue element and the proper relationship is between Hunt and his counterpart policeman, Sidirov, who slowly comes to realise that they are in fact on the same side. The real villain is Kurt Hendricks, a Swedish-born nuclear strategist who wants to start a nuclear war because that way the weak will be… etc. Played with stunning boredom by Michael Nyqvist, Hendricks fails to menace or even register to the extent that I have been genuinely at a loss to remember what he was doing in the film, and have had to resort to Wikipedia to learn he was indeed a Swedish-born nuclear strategist.

In fact, this is perhaps an inevitable element of Mission Impossible. The adversaries are not so much people as places - 007 might need villains of eccentric individuality, but Mission Impossible seems always to be Location, Location, Location. At the very beginning it is the prison that must be defeated with doors opened and locked in the correct sequence, and Ethan Hunt taking on the role of a fighter in a platform game, being controlled by Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn. Likewise the Kremlin sequence was about getting into a room and out again, distorting a corridor along the way. By far the best sequence of the film comes in Dubai with the climbing of the Burj Khalifi tower. This sequence is genuinely brilliant and shot with an economy of purpose that reveals Brad Bird’s routes in animation. Likewise reminiscent of his work on The Incredibles (2004), the touches of humour manage to enhance rather than dissipate the tension. A threatened sand storm seems at first like a red herring only to come back again with a vengeance in a later sequence.

The film is at its weakest when it tries to develop a human backstory for Ethan Hunt. Despite the three previous films, we’re ultimately unlikely to be interested in who Hunt really is. Mission Impossible is about masks and disguises and people clambering up impossible architecture and dangling from wires. When something or other was revealed about Ethan Hunt’s wife, I had difficulty remembering when he had had a wife and whether I already knew this (it has to be from the third film, I think). In fact, in a reverse of movie poster parlance, ‘Ethan Hunt is Tom Cruise’. This can be seen in the publicity that surrounds each film with posters dominated by Cruises’ big head in profile. The Team might be there, walking behind him - poor Simon Pegg lost in a Dubai sandstorm - but it’s finally all about Cruise the producer and Cruise the star and Cruise the action figure, and, as Jonathan Ross et al, will remind us, Cruise the stuntman. What it certainly isn’t about is Cruise the actor.

This Alternate Take was published on February 20, 2012.

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