ON THE SILVER SCREEN: "MISSION" ACCOMPLISHED

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By Brian Lafferty

December 21, 2011 (San Diego) – Many people I know would be hard-pressed to name their favorite TV show. For me, it’s easy. Mission: Impossible is my all-time favorite TV show. There’s something about the creativity in each mission’s execution. Even though everybody knows that the team will succeed, that doesn’t mean it lacks suspense.

I confess: I haven’t seen any of the first three Mission: Impossible movies. Maybe that’s a good thing, since it was impossible for me to compare in my head Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol to the previous three Tom Cruise vehicles. Ghost Protocol takes creator Bruce Geller’s original vision of his 1960s series and enriches it.

The movie opens with a daring rescue of veteran IMF (Impossible Missions Force) agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) from a Russian prison. After a lengthy opening title sequence reminiscent of Saul Bass’ work, the team’s mission, should they decide to accept it, is to prevent nuclear detonation codes from falling into the hands of a maniacal Russian (Michael Nyqvist). The mission ends in failure and the Kremlin is bombed. The IMF is disbanded and disavowed, and Ethan Hunt and his team must work by themselves to complete the mission.

In the TV series, the missions were executed in clockwork fashion but suspense was ever-present. This is because the writers always left open the possibility that something could go wrong or things could change at any time.

Ghost Protocol follows that same pattern, with a cinematic touch. Writers Josh Applebaum and André Nemec elevate it with many game-changing variables that neither the team, nor the audience, can anticipate. The operative word here is “change.” The movie never falls into Murphy’s Law territory; to do otherwise would make the film predictable, since the audience will know that everything that can go wrong will go wrong. What the writers do instead is force the characters to adapt to sudden changes. Consequently, the film goes in directions that nobody either on screen or in the theater can predict. That’s what creates so much suspense.

Ghost Protocol is more than just plot twists and turns. The execution of the mission and the actions sequences breathe the same creativity as the TV series. Car chases, and chase scenes in general, are extremely difficult to pull off effectively because they have attained cliché status in the forty years since Bullitt. The chase scene through the sandstorm induced in me a pounding heartbeat. I admired the creativity and the filmmakers’ ability to instill suspense with such a tired trope.

Cinematographer Robert Elswit’s frequently mobile camera generates a weightless, on-the-fly atmosphere that mimics the team’s predicament. Elswit’s camera movements and their effects are so subtle, however, that I hardly noticed them even though they were always in the back of my mind. I prefer that approach because it says to me that the filmmakers have faith in my ability to process it and that they’re not trying too much.

Ghost Protocol contains several scenes shot with IMAX cameras. There is a slight, but brief, disconnect when the frame goes from 2.35:1 to IMAX but when it subsides, it’s easy to marvel. These sequences challenged me, none more so than the sequence at the world’s tallest building in Dubai, which takes place on the 118th and 119th floors.

The IMAX comes into play when Ethan has to climb, with special gloves, seven stories from the 119th floor to dismantle the security system in order to allow Benji (Simon Pegg) to hack into the building’s computers. As Ethan climbs up, director Brad Bird throws in a few towering shots of the ground below. It is truly scary. The IMAX increases the depth of field so much that it truly feels like the audience is over 119 stories high. Not even the best 3D camera can match this effect.

This installment was directed by Brad Bird, who is mostly known for his work in animation, particularly at Pixar. As an animator, he has a lot of respect for the medium and his films reflect his sense of the history of animation.

Ghost Protocol has so much respect not only for the action picture but also for previous generations of filmmakers who spent years forming a perfectly good film grammar that many young directors today unfortunately tend to ignore.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is now playing in local theaters. See it in IMAX if you can.

A Paramount Pictures release. Director: Brad Bird. Screenplay: Josh Applebaum and André Nemec. Cinematography: Robert Elswit. Original Music: Michael Giacchino. Cast: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, and Michael Nyqvist. 133 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Brian Lafferty can be reached at brian@eastcountymagazine.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.