Paramount Pictures’ Mission: Impossible franchise is a rare phenomenon. Few film series based on properties as old as it is have retained such relevance in the modern movie market and few take as long a break in between installments making each new entry a highly anticipated event. Such is the case with Ghost Protocol the fourth in fifteen years starring Tom Cruise as super-agent Ethan Hunt. Adding to the hoopla surrounding the holiday release is the fact that it marks the live-action directorial debut of Brad Bird the Pixar wunderkind responsible for Oscar-winning hits The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Unfortunately I feel that the animation auteur had too much to prove in his first physical outing and tried a bit too hard to thrill resulting in a film that plays more like John Woo’s over-the-top M:I:II than Brian de Palma’s suspenseful original.
The plot essentially kicks off when a bomb blasts a hole the size of a football field in the Kremlin (Russia’s most important government facility) while Hunt and his team of IMF agents (Paula Patton and Simon Pegg) attempt to extract a nuclear detonation device from the fortress before a mysterious figure known only as Cobalt can get to it first. The problem: Cobalt has gotten to it first and frames Hunt and company for the bombing causing the U.S. President to enact "Ghost Protocol " which disbands the IMF and disavows its soldiers. Knowing that the theft of the device and a batch of codes that enable it to be used prior to this event means that Cobalt surely intends to start World War III the agents go rogue to retrieve the components and bring the terrorist to justice.
Like the fore mentioned bomb blast Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec’s script is devastating leaving scattered pieces of information all over the place and making it hard for the story to truly find its footing. Expository plot points are dropped in way after they’re needed or wanted messing with the pace of the movie on more than one occasion. Perhaps their biggest crime is crafting a lame villain with little presence in the picture. After the intensity that Phillip Seymour Hoffman brought to his antagonist in M:I:III Michael Nyqvist’s quiet and composed Hendricks just isn’t convincing enough as a true threat. On the other hand Bird’s direction is anything but composed.
While his use of IMAX cameras is quite breathtaking when filming the much-publicized Burj Khalifa climb and other notable set pieces as stated before his approach to the material seemed to be “let’s make every action sequence as ludicrous as we can.” I realize that MIGP is a holiday blockbuster designed to get audiences blood pumping but I’ve always found that action films work best when they operate (mostly) within the confines of reality. That’s clearly not the case here where Hunt drives perfectly through a blinding sandstorm without causing much collateral damage and nosedives a Volkswagen off of a 30-foot drop and lives to save the day.
Still it’s all in the name of fun and he does manage to create an entertaining dynamic between his IMF agents. Patton is totally passable as Jane Carter an agent seeking revenge for the murder of her cohort and apparent beau Hanaway (Josh Holloway) while Pegg returning as Benji the tech-geek from the preceding film has been promoted to field agent and is without question the movie’s saving grace. Though his comic relief is relied heavily upon it’s absolutely welcomed. The biggest surprise is Jeremy Renner who was supposedly brought in to take the reigns of the franchise but is pretty stale as Brandt. He never elevates his character to the level of coolness that Cruise has maintained throughout the years and doesn’t provide anything significant other than assistance. Given the talent that we all know he possesses his negligible contribution was a bigger let down than the film itself.
In 117 AD the famed Ninth Legion of the Roman army inexplicably disappeared. Through the centuries many legends pertaining to the missing squadron have unfurled. Some claim that the harsh elements of northern Britain brought them to their doom while more extraordinary stories suggest that supernatural forces laid waste to the soldiers. Writer-director Neil Marshall sought to set the record straight about the lost faction of fearless Romans with his new film Centurion but his audience receives much more mutilation than explanation.
A highly explosive cocktail of blood sweat and steel the film centers on Michael Fassbender’s Quintus Dias the stoic soldier for whom the film is titled and a captive of the savage Picts who have thwarted Roman subjugation for decades with effective guerrilla tactics. Quintus manages to escape the Picts’ village and regroup with the Ninth Legion led by the brave General Virilus (Dominic West) which happens to be on its way to finally end the devastation at the behest of a pushy Roman governor. Like every failed attempt at conquest the Roman forces are demolished. Quintus manages to survive yet again (cue eye-roll) along with a small group of battered warriors who end up on the run through treacherous terrain trying to stay a step ahead of Etain (Olga Kurylenko) a feared Pict huntress whose only joy in life comes from spilling Roman blood.
Like the movie’s breakneck production pace the story moves incredibly quickly leaving little time for the plot to be fully fleshed out (there’s not much of it anyway). The film would have benefitted from some more character development especially with the supporting cast because it is intended to be an ensemble piece but as each soldier got picked off I began to realize how insignificant most of them were to the narrative. As with all chase films though it’s the thrill of the hunt that keeps you engaged and Centurion delivers in that sense.
Fans of Marshall’s previous films The Descent and Doomsday will be drawn to Centurion’s similarly sadistic depiction of violence which is in no short order. Squeamish moviegoers will likely spend at least half of the movie’s 97-minute runtime with their eyes clenched as heroes and villains hack away at heads and limbs vividly illustrating the less-than-civilized age in which the film is set. Had previous entries into the swords-and-sandals genre like Braveheart and Gladiator not shown audiences and filmmakers alike that blood and story can be successfully balanced Centurion would’ve fared better but the director’s preference of gore over plot points kept me from ever being able to take it seriously.
Marshall’s mind is like an encyclopedia of genre conventions and he puts this knowledge to good use in terms of the movie’s technical components conforming to the visual style that we’ve come to expect from this period. If it’s growth that you’re hoping for don’t expect to find much; the only sign of it that the filmmaker demonstrates is in his at-times surprisingly poetic dialogue which describes the repulsive details of war and gives its deliverer Quintus much-needed depth. Credit is also due to a handful of the actors (namely Fassbender West and Kurylenko) who braved health-hazardous conditions to get the film made and take the on-screen chaos in stride no matter how absurd it gets.