Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

This is a superb Robert Elswit two-shot. The man's a genius.

Robert Elswit, ASC knows pretty pictures and excels particularly at shooting in large outdoor spaces. His filming of the city of Dubai, the floating shots of the Sahara that surround it, and the towering Burj Al Arab, are by turns sumptuous, magnificent, and awe-inspiring. Bangalore at dusk through Elswit’s lens is a wonder to behold. Elswit and IMAX is a recipe for a surefire visual orgasm. But Elswit knows how to frame people too. A two-shot is never just a two-shot with Elswit behind the camera. He makes us understand the relationships between the characters, and between the environment and the characters in one deft setup. Why am I talking about the cinematography of a silly (but fun) tech-driven spy flick like Ghost Protocol? Who cares about filming techniques in a Tom Cruise action-fest? I goddamned do, that’s who!

Ethan Hunt is like James Bond without the twinkle in his eye. He wields ridiculously improbable gadgets with such deadpan aplomb that I can’t tell if Cruise is blinded by arrogance, or a truly genius actor who understands how much more fun this kind of bullcrap is when the actors take themselves very seriously. Is it irony? I’m not convinced. Anyway, the M:I series has passed through the hands of heavyweight action directors Brian de Palma and John Woo as well as relative newcomer J.J. Abrams and the results have been mostly (crowd) pleasing. The consensus on the series is that it produces dependably fast paced, action driven popcorn fare, and assuming you can stand Tom Cruise for a couple of hours you’re in for a pretty good time. Brad Bird (Ratatouille, The Incredibles) does an often astounding job of keeping the typically convoluted, jet-setting plot comprehensible. The set action pieces are deftly handled as well, I never felt lost amid a flurry of confusing rapid cuts, a disturbing trend in contemporary action films. In fact, I found myself quite consciously giving thanks to the editors several times for keeping things clear. When not in the throes of massive action sequences, the plot runs like clockwork. A pleasing rhythm pervades GP. The characters breeze through the world and are buoyed along by an unending series of mini deus-ex machina. When Ethan needs to find clothes and contact HQ after escaping a Russian hospital, everything he requires magically appears one by one. Even a drain-pipe appears just as it is needed for the sole purpose of conveniently disposing with a stolen mobile phone.

The set pieces are rather good, particularly the massive sandstorm which blows into Dubai at a crucial moment in the mission. Gimmicks and the aforementioned gadgets come thick and fast (my favourite being a mobile digital projection that effectively acts as a ‘cloak’ for our plucky heroes). These Bond-like devices are delightfully and ‘impossibly’ convenient, not only to the characters, but to the pace of the film. Ethan and Co. never have to stop for much. Plate glass is cut through like butter, encrypted doors are hacked with a universal door opening device. At one point Ethan receives mission instructions from a secret LCD screen ‘cleverly’ hidden in an old school phone booth, a not so sly nod at the franchise’s TV roots. To be fair, the film draws cheeky attention to it’s more improbable plot points. A conversation between Ethan and one of his team in which they debate the plausibility of a recent narrow escape signals to the audience what is expected of them (good humour and no hard thinking) and this is a nice courtesy.

The acting is perfunctory, but not terrible. Cruise plays the cool-headed Hunt as you would expect him to in a paycheque film like this. Despite the sob story about his ex-wife there is no impetus to emotionally invest in him. Simon Pegg is great as the staple tech-expert/comic relief character that all tech-driven spy or heist films seem to require. Nobody really stands out, which is a shame. The film could have really benefited from a strong villain and some more developed connections between its characters. The potential was there for both of those things, but was unfortunately wasted.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is big, dumb, fun. It is deftly directed, beautifully shot, and never gets boring. While it lacks the cerebral element of recent action blockbusters (such as Chris Nolan’s efforts of the last few years), it revels in old-fashioned popcorn fun. And even if you’re not into that, you can just sit back and admire Elswit’s handiwork (five stars for him). The cinematography really is ten steps ahead of the film.