On one of the lousier days of my life, taken up with hospital visits and worrisome health news about dearly loved ones, I made my exhausted way to an undeniably stupid movie on a giant IMAX screen with sound booming forth from approximately 279,000 speakers on the floor and in the ceiling and in the walls—a stupid movie I will always remember with fondness and gratitude.
The fourth of the Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible films, Ghost Protocol is not defensible as a piece of storytelling or character construction. What little plot Ghost Protocol has involves a crazy genius who wants to start a nuclear war for reasons the screenwriters don’t even bother to make clear. It feels like the most expensively produced episode of a TV series ever made; it even seems to break at the right moments for commercials. With the exception of the wonderful British comedian Simon Pegg, who plays the stereotypically nerdy computer guy, the acting is indifferent.
And yet I found Ghost Protocol a total gas, a cinematic antidepressant. Unlike its three lugubrious predecessors, Ghost Protocol is light as a feather and almost giddy when it comes to the pleasure it takes in placing Cruise in a series of life-threatening circumstances, one more preposterous than the next. From an opening jailbreak in a Russian prison set to the tune of Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” the movie progresses to Cruise dolled up with grey hair and a mustache almost singlehandedly invading the Kremlin.
Fortunately, the movie dispenses with the ridiculous makeup trope of the earlier three—the magical face mask that transforms Cruise into any person whose photograph he has, even though Cruise is approximately 4 feet 9 inches tall—by turning it into a running gag. That is characteristic of the first live-action directing job by Brad Bird, the Pixar genius largely responsible for The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Bird brings some of Pixar’s gaiety to the proceedings, especially in a sequence set in an automated parking garage that directly evokes the climactic scene in Monsters, Inc.
In general, Bird and the screenwriters have decided simply to treat Cruise (and his body doubles) as though he were an animated character—Road Runner, only with code-word clearance. They have him bouncing off moving cars, running 20 miles an hour in an Arabian sandstorm, even climbing up the side of the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai only using a pair of suction gloves for traction.
Bird handles the Cruise walk at the top of the world’s tallest building with such control and aplomb that he puts Michael Bay, the director of the Transformers movies, and other present-day action-movie veterans, to shame. For one thing, he doesn’t dwell too long on it, while others would have, given how fiendishly difficult and expensive the whole thing must have been to shoot. For another, it’s actually funny. And funny is what I needed that day—funny and mindless, but intelligently mindless, if that distinction makes any sense to you.
The idea that we go to movies to get a brief respite from our troubles is such a cliché by now that it has appeared in 32 Woody Allen films. But it can’t just be any movie; it has to be a movie that knows its purpose is to offer silly, unserious fun. Had I gone to War Horse, Steven Spielberg’s World War I movie, or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—which has the profound good taste to combine 9/11 and autism in one package, sort of like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup from Hell—I would have emerged from the multiplex ashen and twice as burdened as when I entered.
Preston Sturges’s glorious comedy-drama Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is the story of a movie director who wants to make serious pictures. He meets a girl on the road and tells her with embarrassment that he is the director of Ants in Your Plants of 1939. She is thrilled; she loved it. “There’s nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive you out in the open,” she tells him. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is the deep-dish movie that drove me out into the open with a far lighter step on a day when I needed nothing so much as that.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.