Manufacturing a franchise out of "Mission: Impossible" has the ring, after a while, of calling a band The Lone Rangers, a la "Airheads." (If they're so impossible, how has the team now completed four of them?) The most recent installment, "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol," not only doubles down on the internal punctuation, it attempts some of the most audacious stunts and set pieces ever committed in an action movie. A Russian prison escape. A terroristic demolition of the Kremlin. Free-climbing the outside of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, a superstructure nearly as tall as the old Twin Towers combined. Whether you can really enjoy "Ghost Protocol" will depend on whether your reptilian brain ("awesome!!!") can shout down your cerebral neocortex ("wait, if he just faceplanted against the side of a building at sprinting speed while falling 20 feet, why isn't he bruised five minutes later ...?"). But then, if you're going to get all uppity about sense, you'll be happy to learn there are some lovely nature specials on PBS playing right about now, and homemade popcorn is delicious when topped with a touch of dill.
Actually, "Ghost Protocol" gets to have things both ways — doubling as an espionage flick and as a cartoony action spectacle, sort of a James Bond lite — in part because it does keep things a shade campy. Tom Cruise returns a fourth time as Ethan Hunt, the top agent of the double-dog-top-secret government agency I.M.F., once again receiving his orders via self-destructing message. We get only a glimpse of Ving Rhames, but Simon Pegg is back from the previous (2006) film as the technician Benji, geeked to be working in the field, and Paula Patton ("Precious") arrives as an agent named Carter, bent on avenging the death of a fellow I.M.F. spook. As she and Benji bust Hawk out of that prison by inciting a riot, they pipe in Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick in the Head." The credits roll and that familiar theme song plays, gently reminding the audience that this is a film based on a TV show from the gadget-and bongo-happy '60s.
So they get out, check a self-detonating voicemail in Moscow and learn that a mad genius is bent on sparking nuclear war by acquiring loose Russian launch codes. While not every villain needs to soliloquize to our heroes over tea or in some undersea lair, "Ghost Protocol" disappoints by never fleshing out this shadowy fellow or his minions. All we really know is that they love pulling triggers, punching faces and driving fast cars. (Avoid this film, by the way, if you have a problem with BMWs starring as the hero-cars in multiple scenes. One upside of this blatant product placement is a cameo by the Vision EfficientDynamics Concept car, a veritable "Tron" doodle come to life.)
Instead of delectable wickedness, director Brad Bird settles for the get-along teamwork story. When Jeremy Renner ("The Hurt Locker") is thrown in, a buried tension threatens to derail the team at a time when home-office support is out of the question. Naturally they have to work together if they're going to pull off the orchestrated chaos that these plots require, lots of talking into unseen microphones and coordinating down to the split second. In between, it's going to take a lot of Ethan Hunt to save the day. Tom Cruise squinting. Tom Cruise sprinting. Tom Cruise shirtless on a zipline. Tom Cruise throwing himself out of moving cars and onto speeding trucks. How he's not a shipwreck of compound fractures by the film's end is beyond explanation. Don't ask for one, and you'll enjoy this ride just fine.
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