Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

What happened to Maggie Q?

Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol makes a few more good moves than it does bad ones. It’s funny in the right ways, well-paced, well-acted, jives with the series’ continuity (mostly), and its length makes you feel like you’re in it for the long haul with its characters.  And as I said in my Knight and Day review, Tom Cruise and I are “okay” now, so I felt like I could go in with an impartial mind (despite, as always, knowing what I was getting myself into).

The film begins with a Surprise Demise when IMF agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway, in his first film role since starring on Lost) is whacked by femme fatale Sabine Moreau (the prolific Léa Seydoux) in Budapest in the midst of recovering nuclear launch codes.  Hanaway’s supervisor and lover, Jane Carter (Paula Patton) then runs an operation to rescue IMF frontman Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) from prison.  Why he’s there, we’re not yet told, but he seems to know exactly what’s going on.

In an effort to regain the launch codes from projected terrorist Curt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), Hunt reassembles his IMF team while being pursued as a criminal by Russian intelligence.  Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who debuted in Mission: Impossible III, returns, and along with William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst who doubles as a super-agent, joins Hunt and Carter as a four-member rogue cell determined to stop Hendricks from starting nuclear war.

The global stakes are higher than they’ve been in any M:I, and somehow things seem personal, too.  Hunt and Carter have both lost friends.  The team’s exploits take them to the beautiful Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, where Tom Cruise performs a stunt that may qualify him as clinically insane.  The film continues the traditions of the “face maker” device and the in-and-out-without-anyone-knowing-we-were-there schemes of the TV show, which didn’t truly surface in the films until the third installment.

The most egregious offense the film commits is cast abuse, which is par for the course when an action movie is given an ensemble cast.  Michael Nyqvist, one of Sweden’s great actors (who starred as Mikael Blomqvist in Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) plays the main villain, but is given less to do than his henchmen.  Josh Holloway, who won a Saturn Award for Best Actor on Television, is given a character we’re allowed to grab hold of, but is eliminated before the opening credits.  Léa Seydoux plays the most interesting villain, a French assassin with whom the film’s deuteragonist has a vendetta, but she’s disposed of halfway through the film, leaving us with the underdeveloped “main” bad guys, who, after the amazingly well-crafted, acted and edited scene on the Burj Khalifa, seem like leftovers.  None of them compare to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain, Owen Davian, from the third film.  Ving Rhames, the only actor to appear in every M:I film aside from Cruise, thankfully appears, but only in a cameo, as does Michelle Monaghan, who plays Hunt’s wife, Julia, a major character in film three and a plot device in this one.  Tom Wilkinson appears as the IMF Secretary, a character never seen before, who gets one short scene.  Again, why?

In addition, the continuity takes a turn for the confusing when Hunt claims “the four of us are all that’s left of the IMF.”  You can chalk it up to the entire team being disavowed because of certain spoilery events, but what happened to Laurence Fishburn’s IMF boss from M:I 3?  How about Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who played Hunt’s loyal team members in that film?  The movie seems to want us to remember them, going so far as using the exact same shot for Paula Patton getting out of a car that J.J. Abrams used in the previous film when Maggie Q, in an equally eye-popping getup, exited a car to perform very much the same role in the operation that Carter does here.

Some have complained to me about the overt humor and gadget absurdity, but lest we forget, the linchpin of the TV series was the sci-fi gadgetry.  When a film in the action genre tries to take itself too seriously, it begins to skirt self-parody, and Bird wisely avoids this, though it’s easily achieved by giving Simon Pegg tons of lines.

In a nice twist, the film also refers even to the first film in the series.  Somehow, Bird found the actor who played Max’s (Vanessa Redgrave) Fabio-lookalike bodyguard in the original movie, who forced Hunt to wear a black mask while meeting with his boss, an arms dealer.  Hunt meets with a different arms dealer in this one, and is confronted with the same black mask by the same bodyguard, who regards Hunt with a charmingly knowing eye.

Stumbling here and there, the film is worth its run time.  The actors don’t all get their due, and the tone is sharply changed from that of the first film, but it’s the only installment in the series to feature a fight between two important female characters (a barefoot scrap on the umpteen hundredth floor of the Burj Khalifa).  The wisest move in the film, though?  Using a hyphen instead of two colons.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol; written by André Nemec and Josh Applebaum; directed by Brad Bird; starring Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Cross your fingers for honorable mention

Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel is a film that makes me regret that the masterworks of our friends overseas will always fall into the category of “foreign films” when I talk about them.  “Richard, what is that movie you’re watching?”  “Oh; it’s a foreign film.  It’s Swedish.”  Granted, David Fincher is doing a surely groan-worthy American adaptation of the Millennium Trilogy, but Oplev’s film will overshadow not only any adaptation of this novel, but any crime thriller released in the near future.

I have a difficult time swallowing the phrase “foreign film” when it comes to gems like this one.  Because it’s territory that makes me feel as un-foreign as un-foreign can be: this is the type of narrative I’m at home in.

Rapace, who plays co-protagonist Lisbeth Salander, is the driving force behind the film. A bisexual pseudo-punk (“goth” if you must) hacker who lives alone, Lisbeth has a troubled past about which we are allowed to learn very little. She becomes obsessed with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and a murder case he is following, going so far as to email him further clues about the case’s solution. Do not misunderstand: Lisbeth is not a girl who needs a man; this is obsession on a deeper level. She is a near-recluse, keeps to herself, has a photographic memory, and shows telltale signs of Asperger’s Syndrome. She is sexually aggressive but completely passionless, approaching physical encounters with nearly frustrating cavalierness, and never giving a smile or a laugh in the entire span of two-and-a-half hours. Her chain-smoking would make Elliott Gould proud. Rapace plays the role with heartbreaking honesty; this is hands-down one of the bravest performances in recent memory.

The movement of the film relies on your standard thriller fare.  We start with an old man who has a problem (Sven-Bertil Taube), a few red herrings and a missing woman, along with a dashing (but not too dashing in this case) protagonist steadfastly dedicated to tracking down the suspect.  Rapace’s character offsets this classic balance, and the results are refreshing.

The Swedish language is beautiful to listen to, even when the killer is explaining his shenanigans during the climax of the film.  The plot takes plenty of turns without ever relying on cheap twists or deus ex machina, and the surprises during the last forty minutes warrant a re-watch.  Oplev gives us true drama where an American film might replace dialogue with CG and action.

I worry about this American remake.  I can’t imagine Daniel Craig as A) a Swede, and B) playing Mikael.  Furthermore, after all the talk of who would play Lisbeth in the American version, Fincher settled on Rooney Mara, a 25-year-old who has done next to no dramatic acting, the majority of her appearances being in teen schlock and corny horror knockoffs.  This is a story meant to be told in its native language with no imitations.  Don’t misunderstand: I am glad an American director wants to pay homage to Larsson despite a film trilogy based on the source material having already been developed and released, but here are a few points you can count on for the remake: there will be more “action” scenes (maybe they’ll even throw in a shootout); the rape scenes will be severely toned down if not cut out altogether and only implied offscreen; there will be far less smoking (if any); there will be thrice the product placement; and Daniel Craig will beat someone up (TBA whether he’s shirtless or not) and say macho stuff that isn’t in the novel.

Trepidations about this and that aside, please see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Tell your film-aficionado-friends about it and have a movie night, then go see the sequels (in theaters now and October).  You will be dazzled by the direction, moved by Rapace’s performance, and you’ll have a frame of reference for when the remake nightmares begin.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009); based on the novel by Stieg Larsson; screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel; directed by Niels Arden Oplev; starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist.

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