I have a theory that the Mission: Impossible movies got better once Tom Cruise stopped being touchy about his short stature and allowed his character to be put in situations that emphasized how short he actually is. (It took this long for Cruise to become slightly less vain, which is so unlike Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. star Clark Gregg, who has awesomely never given a shit about sharing the screen with Marvel Cinematic Universe actresses who tower over him, whether that actress is Gwyneth Paltrow or Mallory Jansen. On the first day on the S.H.I.E.L.D. set, Gregg, a veteran of so many David Mamet projects, must have said something Mametian like "Fuck these fucking apple boxes you want me to stand on.")
That creative resurgence for the Impossible movie franchise (Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation turned out to be the best Impossible movies since the first one) began right at the start of Ghost Protocol, when Cruise was surrounded by prison thugs who were a foot taller than him, and the creative resurgence continued when Cruise, for the first time ever in the series, sighed and rolled his eyes like a too-old-for-this-shit, Rockford Files-era James Garner while getting knocked on his ass by an even taller enemy agent in Rogue Nation's terrific opera house assassination attempt sequence. That's another thing about the weird late-period resurgence of the Impossible movie franchise (which will come out with a sixth installment next year): the addition of more humor to these movies has resulted in Ethan Hunt becoming a slightly more likable and relatable protagonist, except the humor never feels forced or overly campy.
"Light the Fuse," the opening title theme Michael Giacchino, Ghost Protocol's composer, arranged for the fourth Impossible movie, is a stunning symphonic reinterpretation of Lalo Schifrin's main title theme from the '60s Impossible. The extra spit and polish Giacchino brought to an old (and kind of overplayed) Schifrin tune are why I chose "Light the Fuse" as the very first track for "Incognito I," the first of three mixes of spy movie/TV show score cues I assembled for the AFOS Mixcloud page. The oldest score cue during the three mixes is John Barry's Ipcress File main title theme from 1965, while the newest score cues during the mixes are from the Epix espionage drama Berlin Station and xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Below these three mixes is a repost of my July 30, 2015 discussion of both Giacchino's score from Ghost Protocol and the Ghost Protocol movie itself, a series-revitalizing installment that's on a par with what Fast Five did really late in the game as a creative boost to the Fast and the Furious franchise.
I wasn't alive when the original Mission: Impossible first aired on CBS, and I didn't watch any of the Mission: Impossible reruns until I saw FX's badly butchered versions of them back when the future home of Vic Mackey and SAMCRO started out as a low-rent Nick at Nite, so I don't have an attachment to Jim Phelps like I do to other characters from shows I'm much more fond of, like, say, Yemana from Barney Miller or anybody from the Greendale gang who's not Pierce. When Brian De Palma's 1996 Mission: Impossible reboot picked Jon Voight to take over the Peter Graves role of Phelps, the cool-headed (and rather bland) leader of the Impossible Missions Force and the hero of both the '60s and '80s versions of the show, and the movie reimagined Phelps as a traitor who had his fellow IMF agents killed, I didn't hiss "Blasphemy!" at the screen or angrily storm out of the theater in the middle of the feature presentation like Graves' old Mission: Impossible co-star Greg Morris did when he watched De Palma's movie. I actually dug the shocking plot twist.
Action film reviewer Outlaw Vern perfectly described why the twist remains an intriguing one in his recent reassessment of De Palma's Mission: Impossible. A master of paranoid thrillers who proved to be the perfect filmmaker to revive and re-energize Mission: Impossible for these post-Cold War times, De Palma "doesn't look fawningly at the cloak and dagger Cold War fun of the ['60s] series... Using the original show's hero as the villain is not only a surprising plot twist, it's a statement." Vern added, "Back then spy shit was fun and glamorous, now we're more aware of the messes it causes, and the consequences of training people with deadly skills and then running out of things for them to do. The guy that was the hero back then is now willing to betray everyone because he's not getting paid enough. Times are tough."
While I found the first Mission: Impossible movie that Tom Cruise both starred in and co-produced to be genuinely thrilling and clever--the beauty of that classic Langley break-in sequence is mostly due to its use of silence, which was De Palma's way of critiquing the noisy storytelling of most summer blockbusters--the villainization of Phelps, which actually made Phelps slightly more interesting as a character, wasn't what bugged me about the movie. What bugged me was Cruise's de-emphasis on teamwork in the movie's third act so that his Ethan Hunt character saved the day on his own and everyone else on Hunt's makeshift team was ancillary. The emphasis on a team of specialists from different fields was what made both the '60s and '80s incarnations of Mission: Impossible stand out from other spy shows, besides the enticing concept of what was essentially a one-hour heist movie every week. If you're going to revive Mission: Impossible on the big screen, it ought to be the espionage equivalent of Seven Samurai or Ocean's Eleven like the old show was, or else why call it Mission: Impossible? Without an ensemble, it's nothing more than 007 as a two-hour shampoo commercial--which was basically what John Woo's abysmal Mission: Impossible II was.
Vengeance Unlimited, in which Michael Madsen subjected the tormentors of his clients to mind games that owed a lot to the mind games of the small-screen IMF) were doing a better job of channeling the old Mission: Impossible than the actual Mission: Impossible movies themselves--until Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol came along in 2011.
The danger of mass information (internet) coupled w/ indifferent adults who don't TEACH the youth http://t.co/oYHqIHjc #WhoIsBillyCrystal— Questlove Gomez (@questlove) February 28, 2012
Tweets that said "#WhoIsBillyCrystal?" remind me of morons who ranted about the #GhostProtocol main titles spoiling the film. (1 of 2)— JJA (@JimmyJAquino) March 5, 2012
Before Tom Cruise, Mission: Impossible was a thing called a TV show, and it opened w/ spoilers every week, dipshits. #GhostProtocol (2 of 2)— JJA (@JimmyJAquino) March 5, 2012
Ratatouille. Carter's thirst for revenge also feels like Bird's comment on what went wrong with Mission: Impossible II and what caused Mission: Impossible III to take a turn for the generic in its third act. When Carter defies Hunt's orders to keep alive Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux), the assassin who killed Hanaway, for intel purposes and kills her instead, her act jeopardizes the mission. It's as if Bird's saying, "When you take teamwork out of the equation and have the characters act on their own, it's no longer the Mission: Impossible I used to enjoy on TV."
One of the most appealing elements of Ghost Protocol is the sight of Carter and the other agents making mistakes. It freshens up the franchise in the same way that De Palma brought his "all bets are off" stamp to Mission: Impossible by starting his movie out as a traditional Mission: Impossible episode where everything seems to go according to plan and then blindsiding the audience by killing off nearly all the agents the movie introduced only a few minutes before. In Ghost Protocol, Hunt and Pegg's Benji Dunn, left without the backing of the government due to ghost protocol going into effect and the IMF being disavowed and shut down, are forced to deal with gadgets that become unreliable without the resources to fix them, a storytelling thread Shane Black appeared to have borrowed somewhat when he opted for a similar back-to-basics, on-the-lam story for Tony Stark in Iron Man Three.
Before the Kremlin disaster that triggers ghost protocol, Hunt receives his mission instructions from a recording that conks out and fails to self-destruct, so Hunt has to give the old Russian pay phone that was playing the recording a Fonzie-style whack to get the message to self-destruct. Then after the Kremlin disaster, the mask-building gadget the IMF has relied on since Mission: Impossible III breaks down, which deprives the team of the state-of-the-art masks that have become such a staple of the Cruise movies. During the much-talked-about Burj Khalifa climbing sequence where, like in the rest of Ghost Protocol, Cruise's brand of crazy is Jackie Chan crazy (he insisted on doing his own climbing stunts again) as opposed to Scientology crazy, one of Hunt's suction gloves malfunctions and turns into Hunt's worst enemy.
These gags are organic to Ghost Protocol's story in a way that the forced running gags about the Enterprise-A's ineffectiveness as a new ship were not during Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
The tech mishaps both raise the stakes of Ghost Protocol and act as a clever metaphor for the anxieties the Mission: Impossible producers must be having about maintaining the durability of a movie franchise that's now pushing 20, whereas all those Enterprise-A malfunction gags were there for no reason, other than because '70s Mission: Impossible alum Leonard Nimoy's Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home conquered the box office after adding more humor and both Paramount and William Shatner wanted another Star Trek IV without exactly understanding why the humor in Nimoy's directorial effort worked.
In fact, Ghost Protocol does several other things better than other movies do, whether that movie is Star Trek V or Hudson Hawk. Benji's playing of "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" to time Hunt's prison break at the start of Ghost Protocol appears to have been lifted from Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello's use of pop standards to time their heists in Hudson Hawk, but according to sci-fi author Christopher L. Bennett, a Mission: Impossible geek, it echoes "the use of carnival music to time a prison break in season 1's 'Old Man Out.'" Bird's background in animated storytelling explains why he's better at writing and directing humor than Shatner and maybe Michael Lehmann (I'm aware that Hudson Hawk has become as much of a cult favorite as Lehmann's earlier flick, the classic anti-John Hughes teen movie Heathers, in the decades since its disastrous release, but all I've watched of Lehmann's Hudson Hawk is the "Swinging on a Star" heist scene).
Bird's animation background also lends a lot of visual snap to Ghost Protocol's massively scaled set pieces, particularly the sequences in Dubai and the climactic Mumbai parking garage fight between Hunt and Cobalt.
The strong visual sense Bird brought to Ghost Protocol is timeless in ways that the speed-ramping and second-rate CGI throughout Die Another Day, the fourth entry in Pierce Brosnan's run as 007 just like how Ghost Protocol is fourth in Cruise's franchise, are not. Those were a couple of attempts to visually transition 007 into the early '00s, but they ended up instantly dating Die Another Day and giving it a whiff of desperation (Bird's visual sense is also preferable over the fondness for shaky-cam both Abrams, who stayed on as co-producer on both Ghost Protocol and the new Rogue Nation, and his Star Trek and Star Wars cinematographer Dan Mindel brought over to Mission: Impossible III after Abrams made the camera wobble throughout Alias and the first season of Lost).
It's a bit of a shame that Paramount denied Ghost Protocol fans the option on Blu-ray of rewatching Ghost Protocol's IMAX sequences in their original aspect ratio so that they can re-experience the awe of seeing Cruise and the other actors dwarfed by such tall surroundings, like during the Kremlin explosion and the Dubai sandstorm sequence.
The lack of an IMAX viewing option also kind of waters down the great visual joke of Bird and cinematographer Robert Elswit framing Cruise in certain shots so that he looks like little Remy scampering through the kitchen and the streets of Paris during Ratatouille. Both that 2007 Pixar flick and The Incredibles concluded with inventive title sequences that were worth staying in the theater for a few more minutes to enjoy, but the opening title sequence Kyle Cooper's Prologue Films company created for Ghost Protocol is easily the most entertaining title sequence in a Bird movie, especially when it's in full IMAX, which adds more frustration to the Ghost Protocol Blu-ray's lack of an IMAX option. The old imagery of the Mission: Impossible fuse passing through sneak peeks at future scenes nicely receives a more immersive, 3-D-inspired spin from Prologue, which follows the fuse as it zooms and plummets like a roller coaster through those yet-to-come scenes, shot from angles that are completely different from how we later see them in full.
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"The Plot," the march theme Schifrin first created for the Mission: Impossible pilot episode to represent the professionalism of the IMF agents while under enormous pressure, resurfaces in Giacchino's Ghost Protocol score, and its return appearance lends credence to my theory that the more a Mission: Impossible movie uses "The Plot," the more enjoyable the installment. Elfman included "The Plot" in his score for the first movie. Giacchino previously referenced "The Plot" in his Mission: Impossible III score. Rogue Nation composer Joe Kraemer, who regularly collaborates with Rogue Nation director Christopher McQuarrie, makes use of "The Plot" even more than Giacchino does, which is a sign that Rogue Nation might not be terrible. Meanwhile, Hans Zimmer never featured "The Plot" in his Mission: Impossible II score. Mammoth box-office grosses aside, we know how that sequel turned out.
But even if Giacchino didn't use "The Plot" at all, Ghost Protocol would still tower over the second and third Mission: Impossible movies like the Burj Khalifa looming over Dubai, simply because of Bird's ability to find the perfect balance of spectacle, suspense and humor while fully restoring the most missed element of the old Mission: Impossible: the teamwork. Sure, Ghost Protocol lacks a villain as intimidating and perfectly realized as the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was in Mission: Impossible III. Nyqvist is too much of a non-entity as Cobalt. Despite having such minimal dialogue, Seydoux makes so much of an impression as an adversary--with her sexy pouts and Beyoncé hair--that I wish Ghost Protocol contained a Ra's Al Ghul-style twist where Cobalt turned out to be a decoy for the real mastermind behind the nuclear threat, Sabine, which would have given the Blue Is the Warmest Color star more screen time. But otherwise, Bird understands that Mission: Impossible stories work best as what the A.V. Club's A.A. Dowd describes as "tributes to process, when they're observing the detail-oriented business of breaking into an impregnable fortress or pulling a technology-abetted heist." It would be a crime if the franchise were to disavow any knowledge of that.