Back in college, a friend of Sean’s used a particular phrase to describe mushy emotional subplots that interrupted otherwise comedic or suspenseful movies: “feelings and woman crap.” It’s completely asinine, but the term nonetheless has become something of a running gag for Sean and me—partly because it’s such a parody of stupid offensiveness that it becomes kind of funny and partly because, loath as I am to blame such nonsense on women, the poor storytelling Sean’s friend was describing is so widespread that it’s useful to have a shorthand way to identify it.
In any case, when Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (that punctuation—kill me now!) came off its awesome action high with ten endless minutes of tell-don’t-show melodrama, I left the theater muttering “feelings and woman crap” under my breath despite myself, and Sean grinned knowingly. For the most part, Protocol is a expertly constructed thrill ride, but even virtuoso director Brad Bird can’t do anything about the leaden display of feeeeeeeeelings, especially when Tom Cruise’s self-satisfied rictus of a smile comes into play.
And that’s a shame because, feelings and woman crap aside, Protocol is pretty damn cool, kicking off with a suave super-spy intro (in which, ahem, Cruise does not make an appearance) and then surging right into a riotous prison break set to Dean Martin singing “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” which has to be the funniest music cue in recent memory. The prisoner in question is, of course, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, jailed for quasi-mysterious reasons until fellow Impossible Mission Force agents Jane (Paula Patton) and Benji (Simon Pegg) bust him out. (Incidentally, the movie seems to think that we’ll be tortured by the question of how he ended up in prison in the first place, but it honestly never occurred to me to wonder why the shady black-ops guy was in a Russian jail. I mean, why the hell not?) Anyway, Ethan, Jane, and Benji quickly get embroiled in a desperate effort to foil a crazed Swiss intellectual/terrorist (Michael Nyqvist) who thinks nuking the globe is the surest path to world peace. They are joined in their impossible mission by IMF “analyst” Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who has surprisingly strong ass-kicking skills for a pencil pusher, and countered by mercenary model/assassin Sabine (Léa Seydoux). Explosive, globe-trotting adventures ensue.
As globe-trotting adventures go, Protocol pulls out all the stops, filming Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and India with colorful, eye-popping detail and sweeping camera shots. As a director of animation, Bird has always shown great flair for “action”—with sequences in The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille easily outdoing those in your average thriller—and with Protocol, he translates his skills to live action with seeming effortlessness. Everything is beautifully choreographed—stylish and visceral and perfectly coherent—from the opening rooftop chase scene, to a complicated parallel rooms scenario, to the mind-blowing setpiece on the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, in which Ethan climbs up and down the building’s shiny glass facade a hundred stories in the air with malfunctioning sticky gloves and a sandstorm on the horizon. Gleefully terrifying, constantly flirting with vertigo, the sequence toys with Hunt’s near death at every nail-biting second.
And frankly, it’s sort of ridiculous that he doesn’t die. Protocol pushes normal suspension of disbelief to the absolute limit, asking us to accept Hunt’s survival of all manner of ludicrous scenarios. To be fair to Cruise (well, to try), maybe that’s part of why I’m completely unable to accept Ethan Hunt as an emotional human being. Ethan can’t possibly be flesh and bone; he’s an indestructible automaton, never tired or daunted, impossible to startle or scare. As an Energizer bunny action hero, he’s great, but the halfhearted effort to “humanize” him with a shadowy past is doomed from the start. It’s bad enough that the contrived backstory between Ethan and Brandt forces poor Renner to affect a dopey, angst-ridden persona that doesn’t suit him; worse, the backstory gives Cruise the opportunity to play smug—and one should never allow Cruise to play smug unless one wants his character to look like an insufferable ass.
Despite all that, Protocol is still far more entertaining than Mission: Impossible III. It’s a shallow adrenaline machine but an amazing shallow adrenaline machine, and sometimes a shallow adrenaline machine is all you want. I just wish Protocol were more willing to embrace that instead of trying to pretend it (and, worse, Ethan) has feeeeeeeeelings. The effect is too jarring—and even more unbelievable than Ethan’s death-defying exploits on the Burj Khalifa. No matter what your gender, I don’t see why you’d be interested in that crap.