Wednesday, January 4, 2012


With reluctance I admit that Brad Bird’s first live-action film, the fourth installment in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise, is the best of the series and delivers all one could want from a popcorn picture.  So it may be some time before Bird returns to his animation roots, if ever; hence my conflicted emotions.  Bird directed (and wrote or co-wrote) three of my favorite animated films:  THE IRON GIANT (which, if you haven’t seen, please rent immediately), THE INCREDIBLES, and RATATOUILLE.  With those masterpieces he achieved the rare alchemy of rich characterizations, elegant storytelling and gorgeous imagery.  M:I4 does not hit those heights.  The characters are flat but functional, and the storytelling crisp but not particularly surprising.  Yet the visuals are spectacular and the film consistently excites despite, and sometimes because of, its familiarity.  After Russian missile launch codes are stolen, IMF agents Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) break Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of a Serbian prison to reacquire them and prevent nuclear war.  But after an attack at the Kremlin, during which anarchist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) acquires a nuclear device, the IMF is implicated in the terrorist act and disavowed.  Ethan’s boss (an uncredited Tom Wilkinson) initiates Ghost Protocol (authorizing operations without official sanction) to keep the team together.  William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) joins the group, and they travel to Dubai where a Hendricks operative intends to purchase the launch codes.  There follows a thrilling action centerpiece involving a 100-plus-story skyscraper and a sandstorm.  Cruise appears more relaxed than he has in years (though his intense, jaw-clenched running is still laughable), and Nyqvist is a remorseless villain.  Patton exudes both proficiency and sex appeal, while Pegg’s brilliant comic timing salvages somewhat clumsy dialogue.  Renner, appealing though he may be, however, never entirely convinces.  Much of the blame must fall on screenwriters Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec, who saddle the actor with an awkward back-story involving Ethan’s absent wife.  Nevertheless Bird’s confident direction carries the day.  Let’s hope he returns for the inevitable sequel.

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