DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
The espionage TV series "Mission: Impossible" aired from 1966 to 1973. In 1996, the show became a film series starring Tom Cruise who returns for the fourth installment, "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol." It's directed by animator Brad Bird making his live action debut. Film critic David Edelstein has accepted the mission to review it.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The fourth "Mission: Impossible" picture titled "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" is nonsense from beginning to end - and wonderful fun. The director is Brad Bird, of "Ratatouille" and "The Incredibles" and "The Iron Giant," and there's no doubt now, in his live-action debut, that he's a filmmaker first and an animator second. Part four is in a different league from its predecessors.
Not that the other Mission: Impossible films have been terrible. It's just the direction they took from the start was annoying. The TV series was deadly dull, but it had two big things going for it: an exciting eight-note motif by Lalo Schifrin that stirringly evoked the rapidly burning fuse in the opening credits; and the notion of a team of poker-faced professional good guys functioning as high-tech con artists, donning lifelike masks to impersonate their marks and coordinating their stings with clockwork precision.
When Tom Cruise decided to produce and star in the movie version, he kept Schifrin's theme and threw out the team. His agent, Ethan Hunt, always ended up the James Bond lone wolf going mano-a mano against the latest super-villain. Directors Brian De Palma, John Woo and J.J. Abrams did what they could to make the films work, but it was Cruise's party, and Cruise's tiresome ego trip.
For whatever reason, Ghost Protocol shifts the focus back to the notion of teamwork. Writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec bring three other characters to the fore: Simon Pegg plays the chatterbox tech-whiz Benji, Paula Patton is driven agent Jane Carter, and, most intriguingly, Jeremy Renner is the anxious policy analyst William Brandt, who finds himself onboard when his boss is assassinated and ghost protocol is invoked.
That's when the agency - the IMF - is disavowed by the U.S. government and its agents become fugitives. I won't bore you with plot synopsis except to say there's a madman who wants a nuclear war so Earth can start over, and he's very determined. But our heroes are more so.
Their early robbery of the Kremlin turns out to be their easiest operation: It is called "Mission: Impossible," not "Mission: Very, Very Hard." Next, Ethan has to scale the tallest building in the world in Dubai, with a dust storm approaching, the mask-making machine malfunctioning, and two sets of deadly terrorists to deceive on two different floors.
Bird and his screenwriters have a great comic conceit. First they have us marveling at the precision and the ingenuity of the high-tech devices, which are better than James Bond's, and then they have us laughing and/or crying out when something breaks down and the team has to improvise madly.
I don't know why Cruise throws the ball so much to Renner - it's not characteristic. But he's very likable as the younger man's coach, and Renner's what-am-I-doing-here vibe makes for funny scenes. He can't bring himself to trust Benji's levitating suit. And who could, really?
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL")
JEREMY RENNER: (As Brandt) Okay. So we head to the party separately as guests. Ethan quarterbacks while Jane gets the...
SIMON PEGG: (As Benji) Gets the cards from the billionaire. I switch off the fan, you jump into the computer array and I catch you. You plug in the transmitter, then Ethan feeds me the codes which I then use to pinpoint Hendricks' location.
RENNER: (as Brandt) Okay. You breezed over something I think really important. The computer array part where I just...jump.
PEGG: (As Benji) And I catch you.
RENNER: (As Brandt) Yeah.
PEGG: (as Benji) I don't – why is that so hard to grasp?
RENNER: (as Brandt) Well, why? It's a 25-foot drop.
PEGG: (as Benji) I'd be more worried about the heat.
RENNER: (as Brandt) And then there's that. What heat?
PEGG: (as Benji) Well, it's like any computer, isn't it? If you switch off the fan it's going to get really hot.
RENNER: (As Brandt) Of course.
PEGG: (as Benji) Relatively, you know.
RENNER: (as Brandt) Of course it will. So I'm - I'm jumping into an – an oven, essentially.
PEGG: (As Benji) Yeah. Essentially. But, I'll catch you.
RENNER: (as Brandt) Great.
EDELSTEIN: The structure of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" owes something to "Inception," and at the risk of outraging the fanboys, I think Brad Bird and editor Paul Hirsch do a better, more elegant job of juggling multiple climaxes.
The finale, in an automated parking garage in Mumbai - yes, they go from Dubai to Mumbai - is as intricate as the rising and falling elevator arcade game "Donkey Kong," and it's helped, as is everything else, by composer Michael Giacchino, who does more variations on Schifrin's theme than Beethoven did on Diabelli's.
I should note the film opens this week on IMAX screens, next week on regular ones, and it's worth a drive and a surcharge for IMAX. The long traveling shot over desert dunes toward that ridiculous vertical metropolis Dubai is breathtaking, and so are the views later on from above Cruise's head looking 130 stories down. You'll feel your fight-or-flight instincts kicking in, but don't worry: Brad Bird will catch you.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.