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.
On the surface Stay seems to be a straightforward psychological drama about a psychiatrist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) who is trying to keep a mysterious patient Henry (Ryan Gosling) from killing himself. But the deeper we get into it the decidedly weirder it gets. And not necessarily in a good way. Sam and Henry seemed to be inexplicably connected. While his girlfriend and former patient Lila (Naomi Watts) looks haplessly on Sam’s lightly held grip on the rational world begins to melt away. He can no longer figure out what is true and what is happening only in his head--all climaxing in a titular confrontation between life and death. Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling would have loved this one. Although he was surprisingly good as the romantic lead in The Notebook the usually somber Gosling is best known for playing quiet psychotics in such films as The United States of Leland and Murder By Numbers. In Stay he’s back to his old tricks as the suicidal Henry. Pale with mournful eyes and a perpetual cigarette in his mouth Henry is certainly a tortured soul looking for some relief. On the flip side Watts brightens the otherwise dismal surroundings as Lila but there’s also a tinge of sadness about her. The only weak link is McGregor. He can’t quite pull off playing the dedicated psychiatrist slowly losing his mind--but the Scottish actor sure has mastered the American accent (ditto for the Australian Watts). Director Marc Forster (Monsters Ball Finding Neverland) seems a bit out of his league with this jumbled-up hard-to-understand psychological fare. Granted the visuals are arresting. Forster strives to create a world which at first seems real but then little by little turns into a wildly shifting dreamscape in which scenes blend into one another seamlessly. The real problem here is the script by David Benioff (25th Hour). It tries to say “Look how clever!” by throwing you for loop after loop--except the loops don’t make much sense. You eventually stop saying “What the hell?” and start to get a pretty good idea how Stay is going to end up. And when the final twist is handed down it’s surprisingly not all that disappointing.
Still living with his immigrant family in Brighton Beach Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) has had enough--the family restaurant has no customers his cook brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) can't cook and his mother nags his devout Jewish father who is anything but Jewish. So instead of getting sucked into a go-nowhere life Yuri naturally gets into arms dealing. After selling a local hood an Uzi Yuri discovers that he might actually have the knack. He recruits his younger brother--more for moral support than business acumen--and begins to soar up the arms dealing food chain attaining wealth luxury and an exciting lifestyle along the way. The only thing he lacks is his dream girl--Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan) a Brighton Beach beauty queen-turned-supermodel. But Yuri finally wins her heart too by posing as a legitimate businessman with more money than he actually has. Ava senses he's not legit but just as long as they have their penthouse overlooking Central Park and a chauffeured limo she'd rather not know what he does. Meanwhile Yuri's interests clash with his chief rival Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm) an old-school gun runner coming to terms with the end of the Cold War. Backed into a corner Yuri is given a choice between continued competition or none at all and his decision sends Yuri into a spiral of rapid moral decay despite ever-increasing profits. His greatest struggle through it all has been with himself. In the end he learns to accept the Golden Rule of arms dealing: Never wage war with anybody especially yourself.
The highlight of Niccol's biting satire is undoubtedly Cage's performance as the amoral but charming Yuri. How is it that we root for this loathsome character when he deserves our scorn? Perhaps the answer lies in Cage himself who is adept at playing scoundrels with humor and aplomb. Not many other actors come to mind who can pull off a frantic matter-of-factness quite like Cage a crucial quality needed to disarm the audience into rooting for a guy who gets stinking rich by selling guns to murderers. Equally likeable is Yuri's best customer Baptiste Senior (Eamonn Walker) the president of Liberia whose only competition for the prize of Most Ruthless Killer is his own son (Sammi Rotibi). Meanwhile Ethan Hawke shows up every now and then as Jack Valentine a by-the-book Interpol agent hot on Yuri's trail. Valentine's adherence to the law allows him to routinely miss opportunities to nab his foe. He won't yield an inch and at one point even keeps Yuri in custody without charges for the full maximum of twenty-four hours but not a second more. Bridget Moynahan's performance as Yuri's wife is serviceable though she does effectively convey the hurt and sorrow of a wife deceived. Leto's turn as Yuri's drug-addicted brother has both its comedic and tragic moments--his character has the most defined arc and the young actor makes the most of it. Only Ian Holm as Yuri's chief foil seems out of place. Half the time he looks bored to be there the other half he doesn't seem to care. Any old British actor with a smudge of charm could have filled this character's small shoes.
The film opens with Yuri speaking to the camera (his narration runs throughout) but it's the following sequence that pulls us in. Starting at a munitions factory in the Soviet Union we follow a bullet from its creation as it travels through various ports on its way to an African country where it's loaded into an AK-47 and shot into a child's head--a powerful and stylish way to show us the tragedy of the arms business without being dogmatic. From there the film settles down into a standard narrative which is where Cage's impressive performance kicks in. Niccol who also wrote the screenplay offers no apologies for Yuri's detachment from his business dealings though it's tough to pinpoint what thematically he's trying to say. Perhaps it's that the arms trade is a fact of life something all governments partake in--particularly the United States the biggest arms dealer in the world. As we watch Yuri grow in wealth while losing everything else most people consider important--family friends morality--Niccol seems content showing us the world as is without offering solutions. The last we see of Yuri is in some war-torn part of the world standing among thousands of spent bullet casings. He has accepted his fate with a casual shrug telling us that so too should we.