For Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Bird's first foray outside of the world of animation, is pretty much great, certainly in the top tier of 2011's 'splodey action pictures. On the one hand, this is merely a relief - a genius though Bird might be in his chosen field, there's no guarantee that skill in one medium necessarily translates into another - and on the other hand, it is an absolute shock that we should, a mere fifteen years after the franchise jumped to the big screen, finally get a movie that makes good use of the Mission: Impossible brand name, after two wobbly, generic action pictures (that being the first and third features) and one wholly ghastly misfire (the second). Owing, perhaps, to Tom Cruise's advancing age and decreasing viability as superstar, Ghost Protocol is the first of four movies to tap into the essential characteristic of the lovely old Mission: Impossible TV show, which was that it was never about an action hero being all sorts of a badass on his lonesome; it was about the efforts of a team of highly competent professionals being all sorts of badasses in perfect synchronicity. It's not the only outstanding thing about Ghost Protocol that it replaces the completely anonymous sight of Tom Cruise using gadgets and being a third-rate James Bond with a paean to the coolness potential of teamwork, but this alone is more than enough to set it apart from the vast majority of action movies.
There's plenty more where that came from: it has one of the most unfathomable rarities in all of cinema, a comic relief character who is actually funny and whose comic moments really do come as nice punctuation marks and grace notes within the more serious business of shooting people and chasing villains (this is a particularly good step forward for the Mission: Impossible films, which have to this point mostly been aggressively mirthless); Michael Giacchino's score is giddy and jazzy, showing off a tremendous sense of humor in a number of tongue-in-cheek "ethnic" cues, and using Lalo Schifrin's iconic theme music from the series in clever ways - it is the best of his 2011 scores in a walk; Robert Elswit's cinematography is sleek and glossy without being too slick for its own good, and generally makes the actors and the globetrotting settings look as handsome as you could possibly want, and it looks absolutely brilliant in IMAX if that's how you go about seeing the movie, as I earnestly recommend that you do. And mostly, there's Bird, quietly orchestrating all of this with his typically energy and affection for old cinematic forms - as with The Incredibles, there's a pronounced '60s vibe going on beneath the CGI and rapid-fire cutting. I'll admit to being pleasantly stunned that there's so much more Bird than there is of producer J.J. Abrams in the piece; I suppose that when you hire a man like Bird as your director, you do it with the full intention of letting him do what he feels like.
So anyway, there's a plot, sort of: with all due respect to writers Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec, a smart, tight story isn't really what any of us go to a movie titled Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol to experience, and it's the case that the parts of the film where the plot is most emphasised - particularly, and unfortunately, the bulk of the last half-hour - are the weakest. In a nutshell, Ethan Hunt (Cruise), beloved agent of the Impossible Missions Force, is in a Moscow prison for reasons that become clear eventually, and he is sprung by another IMF agent, Jane Carter (Paula Patton), to assist in the resolution of a case that went awry when yet a third IMF agent, and Jane's lover, Trevor Hanaway (Josh Holloway) was killed while carrying sensitive documents, whose import will also become clear eventually. This involves sneaking into the Kremlin, which just so happens to explode right when the agents, including tech-head turned field agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, the aforementioned good comic relief), are extricating themself. This in turn leads the President to activate "Ghost Protocol", which shuts down and disavows the whole of the IMF, and leaves Ethan, Jane, and Benji out in the wilderness as rogue agents, accused of bombing the Kremlin just because they're such assholes.
This then kicks of the plot proper, in which they are joined by IMF bureaucrat Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who has a Dark Secret, which becomes clear eventually; and there's a whole lot of stuff involving nukes and conspiracies and treacherous Swedish-Russian strategist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), but mostly what we need to know and all we care about is that Hendricks is bad, and there is a hot blonde French assassin, Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux), and it's all so much MacGuffin nonsense that facilitates a number of crafty plots by the four remaining IMF agents to stop the bad guys in Dubai and Mumbai.
On the purely amphibian level of the human brain that responds to cool things and picturesque violence, there is a whole lot of solid gold in Ghost Protocol, and even what's not fantastic is still pretty damn good - the opening scene, with the forced use of Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" during a prison riot (where, haha, people are being kicked in the head), comes as pointlessly meanspirited, but even here the action choreography and the chess-like manipulation of characters to execute a plan are satsifying, and any sense we have of the film being a joyless, violent slog is immediately dispelled by the exhilarating opening credits, a newfangled throwback to the original series. And from there on, it's all impeccably-crafted, ingeniously-conceived fun: Bird's breezy direction results in a barrage of setpieces that are thrilling and funny and blissfully stylish all at once; he even manages to make an almost completely silent bit in which Ethan and Benji have to slide a projector screen down a hallway without being noticed (it's way more interesting than I just made it sound) one of the most nail-biting things I have seen all year. That's without bringing in the film's extraordinary centerpiece, in which the tallest building in the world, Dubai's Burj Khalifa, serves as a sheer glass climbing wall, its vertiginous glory being the single best use of the building-sized IMAX screen in the whole picture.
The problem is that the Burj Khalifa setpiece is by no means the film's climax, and everything - absolutely everything, including a fun riff on the famous suspended-from-a-wire scene in the first M:I movie, and a weird as hell but irresistibly staged climax in what amounts to a vending machine for cars - feels like a letdown after that; the bits of the movie where the filmmakers actually have to resolve the situation that they've set up suck all the wind out of what has till then been a playful, elegantly paced delivery system for nifty setpieces and genial moments with figures just finally etched enough that they're not complete stock characters. The wind-down is annoying, basically, and in a 133-minute film, that is not a good thing at all. I'm not even certain that 133 minutes is too long, only that the 133 minutes come in the wrong order - put the Mumbai stuff in the middle, and end in Dubai, and it's a steady string of escalating tension, and it's all gravy.
But, you know, whatever. The film is a blast; it is not terribly intelligent, though it is passably witty, with knowing jabs at Cruise's persona and the ancientness of the M:I formula, a raft of nerdy-chic one-liners for Pegg, and far too many innuendos at the expense of Renner's indeterminate sexuality for it to possibly be an accident. It is undoubtedly the shallowest of Bird's four movies (Good Lord! a Mission: Impossible movie is shallower than The Iron Giant! What shall we do?), but he doesn't use that as an excuse to slack off; on the contrary, this is the most consistent and disciplined piece of action moviemaking in a year or two, a popcorn movie that takes its charge to be entertaining and creative with deadly seriousness, and which does not for one moment assume that being a fast-moving thriller is any job for the lazy.