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Perhaps it’s the fact that I just finished reading Jaron Lanier's counterintuitive but deeply persuasive polemic You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, or maybe I'm just suffering from sequelitis, but my reaction to Ethan Hunt's fourth impossible mission on the big screen (really big; this one's shot in IMAX format) was one long existential yawn. Why? It's a brilliantly constructed film for the most part, far and away the best of the franchise thus far, keen to please its core audience and stretching itself in ways that possibly only new helmer Brad Bird might have thought of. Bird is best known as Pixar's heart and soul, having directed that studio's finest moments (The Incredibles and Ratatouille, respectively) as well as The Iron Giant, one of my favorite films, animated or not, of all time.
An opening prison-break sequence sets the tone (wacky and volatile, with Dean Martin crooning breezily on the soundtrack) for what's to come. Impossible Mission Force Agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise, looking fit but less stoic than previously) drops an homage to Steve McQueen while IMF techie Benji (Pegg) and his cohort Jane Carter (Patton) plant charges and fiddle with knobs, freeing Hunt from a grim Russian lockup. He’s just in time to be corralled into a new, even more impossible mission. Hunt and company are informed (by the IMF boss, played by Tom Wilkinson) of the evil machinations of Kurt Hendricks (Nyqvist), a Bondian villain who's stolen the codes to a battery of Russian nuclear missiles and is intent on starting World War III as quickly as possible. Tasked with penetrating the Kremlin (for starters, no less), the unflappable Hunt gets more than his share of clever disguises, buggy gizmos, and long, long falls from high places.
Bird proves himself a consummate live-action director right out of the gate, which, frankly, is no surprise. He brings to the action set-pieces a sense of exuberance, fluidity, and sheer scale that echoes much of his previous animated work, tossing Hunt high atop the world’s tallest building (via malfunctioning sucker gloves), Dubai's famed Burj Khalifa, among other mind-melting moments. Bird also brings a welcome sense of depth, space, and possibility to the frame; his compositions are wildly original, and it's easy to imagine Mr. Incredible in Hunt's stead. Ghost Protocol is never cartoonish but it is incredibly animated.
So why was I transfixed yet unmoved in this imaginatively unmoored and frequently magisterial mission? I suspect it has much to do with some sort of pre-holiday action overkill. Having just been battered into submission by Guy Ritchie's uneven but tantalizing Sherlock Holmes, I'm still in a defensive postural crouch, awaiting the next rain of ultracool badassery with something approaching trepidation. Bird's vision of the IMF and, indeed, live-action filmmaking in general brings much to the table, but the film's gee-whiz/oh-fuck gadgetry and stunning IMAX vistas (Hello, Mumbai!) still left me with the feeling I've seen much of this before. It's not that I'd like something better, it's just that I'd like something new. It’s the holidays after all. Is that too much to ask for?