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Mission accomplished: Strong sequels not impossible

Thursday - 1/26/2012, 4:32pm  ET

Tom Cruise Mission Impossible (AP)
Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt, left, Paula Patton plays Jane, Simon Pegg plays Benji, and Jeremy Renner plays Brandt, right, in a scene from "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, David James, FILE)

Ghost Protocol: The most impossible mission?

Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic

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Jason Fraley, WTOP Film Critic

WASHINGTON - Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to take an established action franchise and not only out-gross it at the box office, but also get better reviews from the critics.

It may sound impossible, especially for a series that once admitted, "All the critics wanna hit it," but the very stigma of "bad sequels" is about to self- destruct in 5 seconds.

The franchise has worn many masks -- four films, four directors, four impossible missions -- but critics are hailing the latest installment, "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," as the best. Personally, I prefer the iconic CIA breach of the 1996 version, while countless others will prefer Bruce Geller's original hit TV series (1966-1973) with Lalo Schifrin's legendary theme.

Tom Cruise returns as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, whose track record includes stealing a NOC list from the CIA, preventing the spread of a genetically-modified disease, and thwarting a psychotic arms dealer. This time around, his IMF unit is disavowed after the bombing of Moscow's Kremlin. The President of the United States institutes "Ghost Protocol," sending Hunt and his team to stop a Russian psychopath who thinks he can achieve world peace through a cataclysmic nuclear event.

As always, Hunt has a slew of spy toys to play with, from special contact lenses to balloon cameras, from versatile tablet computers to sticky Spider-man gloves. As he runs down the side of Dubai's Burj Khalifa skyscraper, Cruise joins Daniel Craig's Bond and Matt Damon's Bourne in the trifecta of 21st century action heroes. Expect Hollywood to keep cranking them out.

More important than the gadgets is the human help, from the comic relief of Simon Pegg ("Shaun of the Dead") to the dangerous curves of Paula Patton ("Precious") to the analyst skills of Jeremy Renner, fresh off Oscar nominations for "The Hurt Locker" (2008) and "The Town" (2010).

Written by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec (TV's "Alias"), the script has its weak moments, like the cliched backstory of an agent explaining why he "left the field," and a lame, overdone "Uranus" joke. It's not good when you're sitting in the theater thinking, come on guys, you're better than this.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by director Brad Bird, the Oscar-winning Pixar alum ("Ratatouille," "The Incredibles") who takes the reigns from Brian DePalma, John Woo and J.J. Abrams. Sure he's no Orson Welles, with quick-cutting shots lacking the symbolic angles of a "Citizen Kane," but Bird deserves credit for packing just enough directing prowess into a genre so often devoid of it:

  • Bird takes a proven page from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" by having his hero mostly silent throughout an action-packed opening set piece.
  • During a scene with an "invisible wall" gag, Bird shows a digital render glitch in the background -- an interesting take on perspective and deep focus for the digital age.
  • Later, he intercuts two simultaneous spy meetings in the same hotel, then cranes the camera down "through" the floor to compare the two.
  • Most fascinating, Bird switches the language of the subtitles mid-scene, right as a character says, "Our media is no more truthful than yours." It's a clever comment on what's lost in translation and the power of the media to control a message (should you choose to accept it).

Thus, "MI-4" becomes a sort of social commentary in its own, explosion-packed way. It's the first "Mission: Impossible" to truly capture our post-9/11 reality, where the old world clashes with the new, special ops vehicles swerve to avoid camels, and GPS devices compete with sandstorms. What's more, it's all built on the threat of nuclear proliferation, with the villain's notion that "world destruction is an unwanted, but necessary part of evolution" and that "nuclear war could have a place in the natural order." The political undercurrent is hardly transparent when one character (in a surprise cameo) says, "You actually said that out loud? 'Mission Accomplished?' I'll see you in Kandahar."

Rarely does such political commentary combine with such riveting popcorn action, but more than any of that, "Ghost Protocol" is simply a ton of fun. The public gives it a 7.7 on IMDB -- the highest of the series. The critics give it a 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes -- again the highest of the series. Calling it from both sides of The Film Spectrum, I'm giving it 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Check out last week's review of "The Artist."

Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on his film appreciation site, The Film Spectrum.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)