The Mission: Impossible movies have been a source of ongoing frustration for me.
(Spoilers to be found here)
I really enjoyed the old TV series and was excited by the prospect of the first movie. It turned out to be very smartly directed, but badly written with a story full of annoying holes. The second movie was just over-the-top absurd, but I felt like I had to admire it on a certain level (any film that includes that “love scene” where Ethan and his girlfriend are in their cars spinning out of control on the edge of a cliff deserves some attention for shear chutzpah as much as anything else). The third movie I liked quite a bit. It was a good story with a strong emotional core. It had the series’ most potent villain and the most likeable version of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, and some very assured first time direction by JJ Abrams. So when I heard that Abrams was involved with this latest entry – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – and that Brad Bird (of the enjoyable-though-not-perfect Incredibles fame) was directing, I was hopeful for similar quality.
To be sure, there were some spectacular scenes. I enjoyed the opening prison break. I thought the mission in the hotel was intriguing and well done. And I can only imagine what the Dubai climbing scene would have looked like with a full IMax experience. A lot of the action was well imagined and full of lots of good touches.
But at the same time so much of it was so frustrating! And the more I thought about it afterwards, the more annoying it got. Here’s why (spoilers to be found here):
1. At the start, Agent Hanaway has a high-tech contact lens identifies that has a visual display for the wearer that helps him identify his initial target. So why doesn’t it just tell him to his eye that the girl approaching him is an assassin, rather than sending a message to his phone? Answer: so he can die, and so his guilt-ridden partner can see who killed him.
2. How does the bad guy know that Ethan and his team are at the Kremlin at the same time as him? Did he just spot them and then take advantage of the coincidence? Or did he somehow just assume there would be an American team there? Pretty shaky storytelling
3. It was an exciting scene when the Secretary was suddenly killed and the car plunged into the river. But who was responsible for that? It seems like it was just the Russian secret service guys, as they were taking orders from that guy, Agent Sidorov. How did they find the Secretary’s car? Why did they just madly shoot it with machine guns? This was the sort of moment that made you believe, especially in a series such as this, that there was some other sinister forces at work, perhaps from within IMF. Now, that wasn’t something I really wanted to see again (after having it be a plot point in two other Mission Impossible movies, as well as in every 3rd episode of 24), but it was disappointing to find out that the scene had no larger implications. Seems like the Russians might have been in trouble with the US at the end of the film for murdering a high-ranking US government official.
Actually, the more I think about it, having the Secretary killed doesn’t make any difference to the plot at all except that it gets Brandt running around with Ethan’s team.
4. I didn’t like the little mini plot with the scientist who is forced by the bad guy to verify the codes. It was fine that they added that complication at the last minute to the Dubai mission, but the business of having his family held hostage felt like a waste of time, and smelled too much like those moments on 24 where poor victim characters would show up for one episode, get threatened by the bad guys, and then coldly murdered after they had served their purpose.
5. Speaking of the Dubai mission, what was the point of having Wistrom turn out to be Hendricks in disguise? Was it because we needed at least one mask in a Mission Impossible film? As far as I can tell, it served no story function either internally or externally, except to say (unintentionally) that Brandt was right: if they had just given Wistrom/Hendricks the fake codes and stopped him there, the good guys would have just won then and there.
6. The “humor” of Brandt’s nervousness about trusting Benji’s magnets gets a little old. The scene where they are talking about it is okay, but Brandt’s extended nervous stretches before he is willing to jump gets tiresome and makes him seem pretty unprofessional.
7. Come to think of it, one of the most frustrating things about the movie is how most of the IMF team seems unprofessional and / or incompetent. Agent Carter can’t hold Nath’s (the Indian guy’s) attention without getting distracted by Brandt’s jump. In fact, she seems to need Ethan to babysit her way through her job. Meanwhile, Benji spends all his time nervously drawing attention to himself. And the conceit of having Ethan hobbling around at the end, barely able to keep up with a much older man in a fist fight, does not help our perception of our hero.
8. Maybe I’m just ignorant but I was confused by that parking lot that the climactic fight was taking place in. I’ve never seen or heard of a place like that, but do they really function without any people around them at all? I can understand cars being retrieved automatically, but do they really just then drive away by themselves? If not, why didn’t anyone notice these two guys fighting all over the cars?
9. Ethan’s wife! Now, I allowed myself to have the fact that she was really alive spoiled for me (it was my own fault, that’s what I get for reading through the “Death by Sequel” page over at TV Tropes). But the way scene played out was confusing. It took me a while to sort it out, but from what I can gather, the Julia was kidnapped by a group of Serbians. Ethan rescued her, killing the Serbians, and then decided to fake her death while he went undercover into the prison, all on a search for “Cobalt.” He tells Brandt that he only took the mission on the condition that nobody would know that she is alive. The problem here is that they seemed to neglect to tell anyone that Julia was actually dead in the first place. Ethan’s friends seem to think that Julia is still out there, having left him. It’s even a twist halfway through the story that she’s dead. So what sort of plan is this? Fake her death, but keep it a secret? For what purpose?
This might have been okay if the reveal at the end had been cool, but it wasn’t. It was flat and uninteresting. As a fan of the third movie, I was pretty disappointed. I wanted to experience something with the news that she was still alive – a real shift in understanding Ethan’s character. Instead, I was left confused.
What exactly is the deal with them at the end? Are they together or not? If they only pulled this little deceit because of the Cobalt mission, and now Cobalt is dead, than why are they still pretending? Or have they actually gotten divorced while Ethan is in prison? Or maybe they are together, and Ethan saw Julia earlier that day and they had breakfast together. But that’s certainly not how it seems. It feels like she is in witness protection and isn’t allowed to acknowledge Ethan when she sees him. So is Ethan basically sacrificing his marriage so he can keep going on missions? What a jerk.
10. Unlike other films in this franchise, this movie tried to do a little work developing the various team members and showing them battle their personal demons. For example, Brandt is guilt-ridden and full of angst. Benji is nervous and insecure. And Carter is guilt-ridden and full of angst. But the attempts are pretty half-hearted, and the actual “overcoming” of these issues almost non-existent. Carter kicks her angst right out the window, while Benji gets to shoot a guy. And Brandt stays sullen until the last scene when he finds out at the end that basically Ethan tricked him. Mission: Impossible III managed to give its team members more personality and sense of relationship without really trying to than this film does with its mediocre efforts.
11. Finally, it is annoying to watch the IMF basically fail all the time. Think about it: they succeed in rescuing Ethan from prison and they win in the final climax, but in between, Ethan and his team consistently fall short in everything they set out to do. First, they don’t get to the Kremlin in time. Then we have the Dubai mission, where there emphasized goals are to track the codes back to the big bad, and to capture everyone alive. At the end, they have lost the codes, they have lost the big bad, and everyone else is dead. Then in India, their complicated plan to deactivate the satellite using secret codes goes nowhere, because Hendricks is one up on them again. Agh! Fail, fail, fail. Of course it’s nice to see a bit of vulnerability, imperfection, and serious odds to overcome. But it makes you feel like they eventually win for the reason Brandt mentions: dumb luck.
So that’s basically it – why I didn’t like Ghost Protocol. And this doesn’t even get into things like whether you could really survive of straight drop into the ground just thanks to a seat belt and an airbag. Have they done a Mythbusters on that yet? All in all, it reads like a bigger, more bombastic version the first Mission Impossible movie (and thus, I guess, is the archetypical sequel): it looked good, but with a story that felt like it was written by committee, and a bored committee at that.