It shouldn’t matter that it’s really Tom Cruise climbing the actual tallest building in the world, leaping out of windows and sprinting horizontally across the face of the Burj Khalifa, a half-mile above the ground in Dubai.
With today’s special effects, the filmmakers could have recreated that scene shot for shot using models and green screen and the viewer would be none the wiser. Hell, most viewers of Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol probably assume that’s how it was done anyway.
But I keep returning to that scene, and the insane manner in which Tom Cruise and director Brad Bird pulled it off, and it typifies for me why this film, the fourth in the Mission: Impossible franchise, is the best pure action film I’ve seen in years.
Cruise’s plan for this series has been to hire buzz-worthy directors with unique visions and let them put their stamp on each film. First up was Brian DePalma, who orchestrated the fabulous Pentagon break-in sequence that is still among the genre’s finest achievements.
Then came John Woo, whose installment is the weakest of the bunch, more because of the increasing reliance on the fake-face gimmick than anything he did.
J.J. Abrams took the helm on the third film (and stayed on as a producer for this one), bringing the series a more human touch, including the introduction of Michelle Monaghan as a love interest for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt.
And now we have Brad Bird, director of two of Pixar’s finest films, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, taking his first stab at live-action. You might expect Bird, familiar as he is with computer imagery, to lean heavily on CGI. But he went in the other direction, relying on live stunt work in one beautifully choreographed sequence after another.
Bird’s answer to the first film’s Pentagon scene is the bravura sequence set in Dubai that features not just the Burj Khalifa acrobatics but a tense double undercover mission, a footrace through a wicked sandstorm and a game of off-ramp chicken that serves as history’s best testimonial for the efficacy of airbags (until the film’s finale, at least).
It’s no surprise that Bird is capable of this sort of cinematic ingenuity. If you’ve seen the pursuit of Dash and Violet through the forest, or Elastigirl’s last-second escape from an exploding jet, you know that The Incredibles ranks among the all-time best action films. Did you really expect much drop-off when replacing a cartoon with Tom Cruise?
Cruise’s image has taken a beating in recent years but for my money he is still one of the most talented, hardest-working actors in showbiz. The man is a true superstar, one of the last of the breed, and if he owes his fierce dedication to his allegiance to the corrupt cult of Scientology, who cares?
Approaching 50 years old, Cruise has grown into this role gracefully. He is in amazing shape, for any age, but refreshingly, he doesn’t look like a superhero. And that makes his superheroics all the more impressive. Did I mention he climbs the world’s tallest building?
Surrounding Cruise are Simon Pegg, as the technical expert and comic relief; Jeremy Renner, as an analyst with a secret; and Paul Patton, as an ass-kicking spy/hottie. The team has good chemistry and I hope they’ve all signed for another film.
I like how none of these characters are fearless. You expect trepidation from Pegg’s novice agent, but we get to see the frayed nerves of each team member, including Ethan Hunt. When he realizes that the only way to access a server room in the Burj Khalifa is by scaling the exterior, Hunt is visibly perturbed. Jeremy Renner’s character has to leap toward a giant fan 20 feet below him and spends several minutes sweating through a personal pep talk before taking the plunge. Patton shakily steels herself before two dangerous undercover assignments.
This humanization of the heroes heightens the stakes and increases our investment in their fates. It worked beautifully in Die Hard nearly 25 years ago and it’s nice to see filmmakers finding those human moments among superhuman feats.
I credit the screenwriters, André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum, who cut their teeth on J.J. Abrams’ Alias, a show that thrived on showcasing the vulnerabilities of its heroes. Following Ghost Protocol, my wife said it felt like the biggest-budgeted episode of Alias ever — and that’s a major compliment.
No doubt I could nitpick this film to death if I wanted to. How is it that a nuclear warhead can get within 10 feet of a major American city without being detected? And the film’s principal villain, played by Michael Nyqvist (of the Swedish Dragon Tattoo movie) might be only a year older than Cruise but he looks like he couldn’t last 2 minutes in a fight with him, let alone survive more damage than The Terminator.
But where’s the fun in poking holes in a film this exhilarating?
When Ethan Hunt is climbing that building and one of his super-sticky gloves malfunctions, leaving him dangling by one hand a half-mile above the ground — a half-mile that we feel every IMAX inch of because they’re really up there — there’s nothing artificial about the racing of your heart or the queasiness at the pit of your stomach.
That’s the feeling of a couple of master showmen reminding us why we go to the movies.