Arts & Events
I'll admit it. I'm haunted by The Ghost Protocol, the latest in the Tom Cruise/Ethan Hunt sequel from the Mission Impossible franchise.
Thanks to the kinetic bravado and imaginative staging of Bay Area director Brad Bird, this MI is one of the best. The storyline is strictly Mission Improbable but with a concept so over-the-top from the get-go, who's going to get bent out of shape when things get silly.
F'rinstance: Early in this saga, the MI Team crew is told that they have 4 hours to "infiltrate the Kremlin" and steal nuclear launch codes. Cut to next scene: Cruise and Simon Pegg are inexplicably striding confidently into the Kremlin tricked out as top generals in Russian army uniforms, their pockets filled with fake IDs and custom-tailored spy tools. Cruise has a false face; his attaché case is filled with an expanding wall-to-ceiling 3-D imaging screen that perfectly fits a corridor they haven't even seen. "Don't bother to ask," the filmmakers practically seem to yell, "Just go with it!"
MI is film fodder for everyone who misses the old Roger-Moore Era James Bond Flicks. In patented Bond fashion, this film starts off with a Big Stunt – a running escape with a rooftop plunge, a mid-air falling shoot-out and an unexpected casual assassination. And then we are off to a series of exotic locations and an onslaught of extraordinary set-pieces (Watch the Kremlin get demolished; watch San Francisco come within seconds of nuclear annihilation).
Although the MI team's covert quartet is stripped of most of their support (having been falsely blamed for the aforementioned demolition of the Kremlin), they have no problem zipping around the world from Moscow to Mumbai to Dubai. And whenever they need some devilishly clever spy-tool (like the battery-powered Spiderman gloves that allow Cruise/Hunt to arm-wrestle his way up the outside of the world's tallest building in Dubai) these appear magically without even the recrudescence of an Agent Q to introduce and explain them.
Mercifully, this sequel is almost free of one of the MI's "signature" moments – the never-quite-convincing peeling-off of the fake faces. Unless I missed something (which is quite possible because there is so much happening on the screen from start to finish), there were only two "face-lifts" in the entire film -- one executed by Cruise's Ethan Hunt and the other trick "pulled off" by the villain, the dastardly Kurt Hendricks – a middle-aged, hyper-Darwinian who believes in "improving" the world by bringing on a nuclear apocalypse.
In one beautifully executed scene, Cruise strides out of the Kremlin in his guise as a Russian general and pulls off his fake face, rips off his uniform, flips it around into a new jacket and stalks off completely transformed right before our eyes. Takes about 5 seconds. No CGI required.
In addition to the scenes of Cruise/Hunt jumping out of the world's tallest building -- the 160-story, 2,275-foot-tall Burj Dubai -- and swinging through the air on cables, there are other equally awesome visuals.
The detonation of the Kremlin, for example, doesn't stop with the destruction of the target building. Oh no, the initial explosions lead to a series of subsequent blasts that pursue Cruise/Hunt across a Russian plaza (like that stone pursuing Indiana Jones), tossing cars into the air behind him as the explosions erupt ever closer – until one finally appears to blast him about six rows into the front rows of the theater.
Then there is a Dubai sandstorm that sweeps in (with visual echoes of the 9-11 demolition cloud) to engulf the city as Hunt chases a fleeing felon on foot and then by car (finding his path trough the blinding sand guided with nothing more than a glowing GPS unit clenched inches in front of his face).
And the amazingly choreographed Final Confrontation between Hero-and-Villain. This time the showdown is staged in an immense automated high-rise parking garage in Dubai where cars are moved about – up, down and sideways – on immense, constantly moving, robotic spatulas.
This "Ultimate Face-off" features another bit of hackneyed silliness that crops up in too many of these super-spy confections. When it comes to mano-a-mano time, the Evil Villain (who is usually an older, sedentary sot) suddenly turns out to be a powerful karate master capable of lashing out with devastating kicks and bone-crushing right-crosses that send our hero crashing to the floor. And it's not enough to have the hero and villain simply duke it out, Director Bird also has them struggling for possession of a metal attaché case that is constantly slipping away or falling out of one set of hands into another – the metal case almost becomes a third party to the brawl, with a will of its own.
Ultimately, when the villain is dramatically vanquished, his downfall involves a stunt that rivals the kind of jaw-dropping stunt-work usually reserved for Hong Kong kung fu epics. In this case, the villain not only falls 30 feet down a shaft, he crashes halfway through the rear window of a car – and then rolls off and continues to fall another 40 feet before smacking back-first onto a cement floor below.
But wait, we aren't finished. Now Agent Hunt needs to get his hands on the attaché case, which now lies nearly 100 feet below on the concrete floor of the parking garage. What does he do? He could take the elevator, but that would be too slow. So he commanders a car, straps on his seat belt, revs his engine and drives the car off the floor and nose-dives the car into the basement of the garage. Glorioski!
Cruise's fellow actors all add to the mayhem and merriment. Jeremy Remmer is relaxed and engagingly amusing as a covert agent with secrets of his own. Paula Patton is all-business -- or all-bosoms, as the situation requires. (She's the only member of the team to take a bullet and she doesn't let it slow her down.) Britain's Simon Pegg, however, is perhaps a bit too annoyingly askew and he winds up on the far-end of the Comic-Cute curve.
But major plaudits to Cruise. Despite the ridicule he has had to endure because of his Scientology beliefs and his reputed preference for inhabiting closets, it's long past time to give Cruise his due. So here it is:
Tom Cruise has proven himself to be the best stunt actor in America. He is our Jackie Chan. Cruise runs like a banshee, vaults over railings like a ninja and side-slides over cars like a human Frisbee. And when it comes to Big Payoff stunts – whether it's getting a rib broken by an explosion that blasts him off his feet or flinging himself out of a high-rise a mile in the sky – Cruise pulls off the kind of derring-do that would have caused Douglas Fairbanks to wet his pants.
So stand aside, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris. The word on the street (and the proof on the screen) is: "Bond is back." And his name is "Bond. Tom Bond."