If “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” feels like a live-action version of a cartoon, it only stands to reason. The man behind the camera is animator Brad Bird, who gave us “The Iron Giant,” “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles,” three of the smartest and most ambitious animated features of recent years. And he brings to the “M:I” franchise the same breathless pacing, eye for action and sly humor that has marked his animated work.
From its introductory sequence — a riot and jail break in a Moscow prison — “Ghost Protocol” hits the ground with all four limbs pumping like Wile E. Coyote racing over the edge of a cliff. Over the next two-plus hours the movie rarely pauses to catch its breath.
The plot — M:I agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team are blamed for the bombing of the Kremlin and attempt to track down a mad genius bent on beginning World War III — is less important than the film’s energy and the many action set pieces Bird throws up on the screen with clockwork regularity.
The picture is overflowing with how’d-they-do-that? moments: the team’s infiltration of the Kremlin’s vaults, an escape from a sunken auto, a death-defying climb up the outside of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, a car chase through a desert sandstorm, and a climactic crazed fight in a Mumbai vertical car park with autos rising and dropping on elevator platforms…not to mention assorted brawls, karate chops, shootings and other mano-a-mano mayhem.
The old “Mission: Impossible” TV series was more about cerebral gamesmanship than physical movement, but here the wildly improbable plot (the screenplay is by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec) is really just a way of stringing together moments of jaw-dropping action.
The story finds Ethan and his squad on their own, having been disavowed by the U.S. government. They can expect no assistance…which is pretty funny considering these secret agents have so much outrageous spyware gadgetry — anti-gravity suits, gloves that turn humans into building-climbing tree frogs, elaborate camouflage gear, communications equipment, ultra-high-end rides — as to make James Bond look like a used car salesman.
Given the film’s emphasis on movement and thrills, there’s really not much need for acting. Yet the players do a nice job of staking out their individual emotional territories.
This time around Cruise allows tiny flashes of exasperation and uncertainty to break through Ethan Hunt’s studly/stoic can-do demeanor.
Simon Pegg provides most of the comic relief as Benji, a tech head who has graduated to field agent status but can’t help geeking out at inopportune moments. Paula Patton (“Precious”) is Jane, whose M:I agent boyfriend gets killed in the first reel and is motivated at least in part by personal revenge.
And a very welcome addition is Jeremy Renner as Brandt, a field agent-turned-intelligence analyst who is keeping a painful secret from Ethan and the others.
The heavy is played with quiet madness by Michael Nyqvist, star of the Swedish films based on the Millenium Trilogy (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” etc.).
But the real star of “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol” never appears on the screen. Brad Bird makes the transition to live-action moviemaking with the sort of effortlessness that makes it seem as if he’s been doing this since day one.