For 15 years and now four sequels, Tom Cruise has pilgrimaged regularly to the Mission: Impossible franchise. Like a Hindu's rejuvenating bath in the Ganges, a dip in the series serves to wash away perceived doubts about the star's enduring fame and clout.
The sustained box office of the M:I series must have something to do with its canny balance of the familiar and the new. Cruise is the through-line, but each film has introduced its own gadgets feeding off contemporary tech — there's plenty of tablet-device fondling here, while the corker is a concealing screen that beams a false image to the eye of the beholder — and a distinct new authorial identity. Brian de Palma set the series template; John Woo put his hysterically baroque signature on the second M:I; and J.J. Abrams, who helmed the grim, bruising third, is producer on this fourth, directed by Brad Bird. The latest to be called up by Cruise, Bird has previously directed hugely successful animated features (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) and so freely embraces the "impossible" rather than staking his action in a world of physical limitations. (Bird was clearly influenced by de Palma, whose passion for the hair's-breadth set piece drives this latest film, which throttles from one nick-of-time, snatched victory to the next.)
As Ghost Protocol, begins, Cruise's agent Ethan Hunt, undercover in a Russian jail, is busted out by IMF operatives (Simon Pegg and Paula Patton) for another mission. When this, a routine Kremlin break-in (routine in M:I terms — in the last installment, the Vatican got its lock picked) puts the team under suspicion of terrorism, the resulting international incident leads the American government to disavow the IMF. Hunt & Co., with the addition of a stranded desk agent, Brandt (Jeremy Renner), are forced to go it alone, tracking a rogue "specialist in nuclear end-game theory" (Michael Nyqvist) who's busily acquiring launch codes with the intention of provoking an atomic apocalypse.
About a half-hour of Ghost Protocol is IMAX-shot, intended to be projected on screens the size of the USS Nimitz. Among these monumentally inflated scenes is the movie's literal and figurative high point, which has Cruise, in Harold Lloyd fashion, scaling the stratospheric upper reaches of the 163-story Burj Khalifa skyscraper over Dubai's SimCity skyline. This and its follow-up, an expressionistic nightmare of a chase through a malevolent, red-hued sandstorm, are virtuoso turns, though largely the movie's action relies on crosscutting between synchronized, coordinated team execution.
The contemporary action movie, on this blockbuster scale, more and more resembles the ESPN "Play of the Week" countdown, one superhuman just-by-the-fingertips circus catch after the next. There is no denying that this can be exhilarating, though when Ghost Protocol stoops to deal in emotional rather than physical expression — Brandt's guilt about a previous in-the-field failure, a mystery surrounding Hunt's disappeared wife — the movie goes flaccid, as if trapeze artists had paused in mid-air to emote.
Inasmuch as Ghost Protocol contains a theme, it's locker-room stuff: There's no "I" in "team," etc. But no one is buying tickets for the message. If the M:I films are immune to the tarnish on the Cruise brand, it's precisely because their spectacle requires us to be impressed by Ethan Hunt, not to like him.