There's supposed to be such a thing as a "law of diminishing returns"; if a hit movie continues to produce sequels, they rarely if ever are as good as the first film. From the eleven-and-a-half Friday the 13ths to the Die Hard and Indiana Jones and Alien quadrilogies all the way back to the Thin Man films, it's a dicey proposition to keep going. Even in the rare cases where a Godfather Part II or Evil Dead 2 manage to match the original, the third film is imperfect. The James Bond films have lows that match their highs, and it tends to happen that the "diminishing returns" play out with each successive 007.
I bring this up because this is the fourth Mission: Impossible film, and it's a toss up as to whether Ghost Protocol or M:I:III are the best entries yet. You could really argue either way, but it's strange to think that the third and fourth Mission: Impossible films are not only that much better than the first two films, but better than a lot of action cinema in the last decade. This comes from a fan of the Bourne films, the Jason Statham cycle (Transporter/Crank/Death Race/etc), the Sherlock Holmes buddy-cop reinvention, The Expendables, Rambo, Predators, and yes, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. While these are all fun in their own right, I'm still prepared to take Ghost Protocol over them right now.
Call me a prisoner of the moment, but it's rare to see a film that doesn't mind being action packed and funny without one undermining the other. It's also nice to see that Brad Bird transferred the breathless action from The Incredibles to the real world, in what is (reported to be, anyway) as realistically as possible. Tom Cruise was dangling from the walls of the world's tallest building in Dubai, although how or why any insurance company would allow that is beyond me.
One of the things I enjoy so much about Ghost Protocol is the way that nothing goes according to plan: from the opening, where Lost's Josh Holloway is "Estevez'ed" because his face recognition software warns him an assassin (Léa Seydoux) is coming while she's pulling her gun out. He's distracted and killed, so Carter and Dunn's first mission is botched, necessitating Hunt's release. Ethan won't just leave the prison when Benji unlocks the cell doors by remote: he insists that the person releasing him (he doesn't know it's Benji, which is a nice conceit between what the audience knows and what the characters know) also open the door for Bogdan (Miraj Grbic), causing an otherwise smooth escape plan into a full fledged prison riot.
And it just keeps going. Little things like the mission brief not self destructing to the mask maker jamming to accidentally killing a key informant to sticky gloves that don't stick keep compounding and making life harder and harder for the team. They can't do anything about it, so they have to improvise, grin, and bear it. So the building in Dubai they need to control the elevators in has a room you can only get into from the outside - Ethan can use the stick gloves to break in so Benji can hack it. They have 30 minutes before the assassin arrives to sell the launch codes to Winstrom (Samuli Edelmann), and one of the spider-man-like gloves stop working halfway up. It's a good thing Ethan was rock-climbing in M:I II.
This works in Ghost Protocol because it adds serious tension to the film. They manage to be too late, make silly mistakes, and only sometimes manage to succeed by the skin of their teeth. It's less of the "oh shit, they have his wife" from M:I:III and more of "there's no back up coming if you screw this up" as is evident when Wilkinson's secretary is killed and Renner is forced to join the ragtag group. He doesn't have anywhere else to go now.
While Pegg is a consistent source of laughs in the film, Renner also brings in some much needed levity as an IMF analyst befuddled by the half-baked desperation ploys during the film. His "secret" isn't actually all that important, especially when one considers the coda for the film (for which I do recommend you catch up with characters from M:I:III), but it does explain how Hunt knows he's more than just a number cruncher. Ethan pulls a gun on Brandt and isn't surprised at all when he's promptly disarmed.
The rumor was that Renner was brought in to continue the series after Ghost Protocol, but then Cruise had so much fun making the film that they may continue with both of them. That's fine with me, because if we're not going with the Maggie Q / Johnathan Rhys Meyers iteration of the team (Ving Rhames' absence from Ghost Protocol is explained without suggesting he's out of the series), I could watch more Mission: Impossible films with this lineup. Cruise, Patton, Pegg, and Renner have great chemistry and work together as a (dysfunctional) team. Like the last film, each member serves more than one purpose and nobody feels superfluous, even if some of the set pieces sometimes do.
Which brings me to the weaknesses of Ghost Protocol, and there are a few: Benji and Brandt are involved in an infiltration scheme reminiscent of the "sensor room" in the first film, but instead of suspenseful it's joke-y and ultimately proves to be another red herring. Hunt's showdown with Hendricks in an (admittedly cool looking) elevated car port is anticlimactic, but that may be due to the fact that Nyqvist is stuck playing a character that barely figures into the movie. He doesn't say much, he's mostly in the background, and the threat he poses is globally more dangerous but doesn't have the same emotional resonance as Philip Seymour Hoffman's Owen Davian. He doesn't register much at all, and certainly doesn't have the impact of Seydoux's Sabine Moreau, a much smaller character.
In fact, it's entirely possible to play out Ghost Protocol without a "main" villain. The film is more or less the disavowed IMF team racing against the clock to stop a missile from launching, and while their attempts to stop "Cobalt" / Hendricks from getting to the point he can do that are entertaining, I don't know that his presence is even necessary. Like the Russian police who show up at inopportune times for Ethan, Hendricks is more effective as an abstract threat. There's one scene that really gives Nyqvist anything to do, and while it's a clever closer to a great chase scene, that's about all that the moment amounts to.
Still, I highly recommend Ghost Protocol, which is consistently entertaining despite these flaws. To be honest, I didn't really notice them while I was watching the film - it was only in retrospect that it occurred to me that some elements of the film (including a character played by Slumdog Millionaire's Anil Kapoor introduced in the third act) were maybe superfluous. It never feels superfluous when you're watching the film: the script by André Nemec and Josh Applebaum and Brad Bird's direction keep you swept up in the race to stop nuclear war. Tom Cruise is again hard at work demonstrating why he's so essential to this series. He's a little bit older than he was last time and things are a little harder for Ethan Hunt to bounce back from, but he's still climbing up the side of buildings to entertain us.
If this is any indicator of what J.J. Abrams and Tom Cruise (as producers) want to keep bringing to the Mission: Impossible series, it's entirely possible that "diminishing returns" aren't on the horizon as they push towards a fifth film. There's certainly enough that happens in the last five minutes of Ghost Protocol to imply there's more story to be told, so keep the quality level high and I'll be back for more.