In the seconds leading to the opening credits of the new "Mission Impossible" film, subtitled "Ghost Protocol," Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt -- while being sprung from a prison during a riot -- tells one of his associates, "Light the fuse," as the instantly-recognizable theme music begins to wind up. It's a clever, self-aware touch, leading into the familiar match strike that opened the TV series and the other big-screen stories.
What it leads to, however, transcends that familiarity and becomes something remarkable. Indeed, "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" is one of the most confidently performed, crisply-directed and flat-out entertaining action-adventure films I've ever seen, period. I'll even go so far as to call it a new genre classic that easily meets the benchmark set by other great action pictures like "Goldfinger," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Die Hard." Really, folks. It's that good -- and that much better than the previous three "Mission" movies.
While a lot of the credit needs to go to Cruise -- who is at the top of his game here, both on-screen and as the film's executive producer -- the person who deserves the loudest plaudits is director Brad Bird. You might recognize the name; he's won two Academy Awards for his animated feature work at Pixar ("The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille"), among other prizes in the realm of ink-and-paint.
Well, as it turns out, his skills in the flesh-and-blood world of live-action filmmaking are equally as sharp. You'd think that the limitations of real-life would have put shackles on his ability to make dazzling film imagery, but no, Bird in his first non-animated feature has crafted the kind of movie that should convince more than a few Hollywood execs that his talents aren't just limited to making great cartoons.
Last week in this space, I gave a fairly glowing review of the latest "Sherlock Holmes" film -- three stars out of four, in case you didn't see my grade. I liked the film overall, but I thought that director Guy Ritchie's too often leaned on amped-up and ultra-loud action sequences with lots of wild effects shots, like he was determined to show off all the neat things he could afford to do.
Bird has a big-league budget, too, and lots of extremely expensive toys to play with; the difference here is that Bird manages to make the quieter moments work just as well as the loud ones -- and the loud ones don't have the cumulative effect of a two-hours-plus assault on the audience's senses. Instead, Bird succeeds at marrying the big action beats (like scenes involving an explosion at the Kremlin or the climbing of a skyscraper in Dubai) with smaller scenes of the hastily-assembled team's members working through their own conflicts to smartly ratchet up the tension as they pursue a doomsday-driven madman (played by Michael Nyquist) across the world, much like he did in "The Incredibles" (which I'd still vote for as his best film, if only because the emotional part of that film's story is richer, but it's awfully close).
The combination produced an audience reaction of laughs and gasps I haven't heard in a movie theater in sometime -- although, to happily confess, more than a few of them emanated from me. This is a dynamite entertainment and easily one of my favorite movies in a long, long time. Four stars (out of four).
Note: I saw "Ghost Protocol" in the IMAX format, with its towering screen and powerful sound system, as had been recommended by a number of other film reviewers. During the previews before the feature -- for a number of very large 2012 action offerings -- I was shifting in my seat, trying to evade the thumping of concussive bass against my chest during each and every cranked-up-to-eleven trailer. It was as the previews were finally ending that I had a fearful thought -- what if the whole movie was like that?
Thankfully, that wasn't the case. This is an masterfully put-together piece of filmmaking from top-to-bottom. It looks truly dazzling in the IMAX format, and the soundtrack won't leave your ears (or any other body parts, for that matter) aching.