As special effects become ever more computer-dependent, and as digital animation becomes increasingly photo-realistic, it was only a matter of time before a studio embraced the notion that the effects-heavy action flick is really just animation that exists in the real world.
To that end, the producers of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol hired Brad Bird -- the Pixar director responsible for Ratatouille and The Incredibles -- to take on the fourth installment in the series; it's his first attempt at making movies with people rather than pixels, and it's a gamble that pays off in one of the most expertly constructed and choreographed pure action films in recent memory.
Bird is a director used to making movies without the pesky limitations of physics (and other minor annoyances) getting in the way. In animation, both his "camera" and his characters can move wherever and however he chooses. That's the philosophy that he brings, as much as it's possible, to MI4, and he announces it early, in a brilliantly coordinated sequence in which two operatives of the Impossible Mission Force -- Agents Carter (Paula Patton) and Dunn (Simon Pegg, returning from MI3) -- break team leader Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of a Russian prison. It's a statement of purpose for the entire film: smoothly shot, gracefully orchestrated, laced with an undercurrent of sly humor.
The director's visual command is so expert that it doesn't even make a difference that the plot is a warmed up leftover from the back of the mid-'80s fridge: Hunt and his team must avert nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. The threat originates with one man, Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a mad and unfortunately one-note evil genius who gets his hands on Russian launch codes and the means to use them. Hendricks is only trying to help nudge the process of natural selection: He believes a catastrophic nuclear event would result in a more highly evolved humanity. Once the fallout settles and the world becomes habitable again, presumably.
The story doesn't rely entirely on Cold War castoffs, though, as screenwriters Andre Nemec and Josh Appelbaum also fold in references to -- and digs at -- current U.S. anti-terrorism policy. An arms dealer articulates it quite plainly to Hunt midway through the film: "To your government, a potential terrorist is a terrorist."
In the moment, the words strike home to our hero: Implicated in a messy international incident, he and his team have essentially been labeled terrorists and hung out to dry by their government. The titular "ghost protocol" cuts the IMF loose, disavows their existence, and leaves them out in the field without a lifeline. Much of their high-tech gadgetry no longer fully operates without central support, which forces them to rely on wit and skill rather than whiz-bang technology.
Hunt's team expands to four with the addition of an intelligence analyst, William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who's thrust unwittingly into the middle of the fray. The four function well as an ensemble: Cruise and Renner maintain a nice tension with their characters' alternate strategic approaches; Patton is the all-purpose versatile utility player; and the expansion of Pegg's minor role from comic-relief technician to full team member is a welcome one. It keeps the film from ever taking itself too seriously -- a signature pitfall of mediocre action movies.
Bird also wisely sidesteps the knee-jerk tendency to make a big event movie in 3-D, opting for IMAX as the better vehicle for visual spectacle. He shot about a quarter of the film with IMAX cameras, and some of the film's signature set pieces -- particularly a vertiginous 130-stories-high climb of the exterior of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai -- make some of the best use of the large format since The Dark Knight.
MI4 may not be as smart as Bird's Pixar work, but that's not a deficiency here. This film exists purely to dazzle and thrill, and by that measure, it delivers expertly, never lagging despite a lengthy 133-minute running time.
Almost as exciting as the film itself, though, is how beautifully it showcases the evidence for a showman's argument: that live-action filmmaking can rival animation when it comes to unlimited imagination. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.