When you hit the fourth film in a feature franchise, there are a number of ways you can go. You can establish a strong footing for the rest of your series ("Harry Potter"), you can abandon everything that made the previous trilogy great ("Star Wars", "Indiana Jones", "Pirates of the Caribbean", the list goes on), or you can do what "Mission: Impossible" did, and just go out and make the best film you possibly can. This a series that had nothing to do in the first two installments, so no real purpose, and then they tried something interesting with the third and deepened the characters, gave it a jolt of humor, and several needed splashes of style. They did well to hold onto that.
So do I see this as the fourth film in the franchise? No. I actually consider it the second in the series that Abrams kicked off in 2006. Now it has become the jumping off point for Brad Bird's first time as a live action director. I think I had some trepidation when the first trailer came around, but we should have never expected an emotional hard-hitter. That's not what this series is, but it does have an emotional undercurrent that works as a steady heartbeat to hold everything together. What Brad Bird has established in his past of animated films is a lively energy and constantly upheld excitement. That translates perfectly for this piece.
The plot that writers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec have concocted together is little more than a catalyst, so all it really has to be is fun. The film kicks off with Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton) breaking Ethan Hunt out of a Russian prison. Why was he there in the first place? Wasn't he married the last time we saw him? These are questions that create a strong emotional riddle that's solved as the film goes on. But before it can be answered, we're thrust into a cat and mouse game with nuclear launch codes that could plunge the world into complete chaos. Now, it's never quite shaken that nuclear disaster was a cold war era theme, but it still works here as an impetus for intensity.
The "story" isn't so much the story here as the work that's put on behind the scenes is. Can Brad Bird direct live action cinema? Yes, and then some. He's not going out for a stroll on this one. This film uses nearly as much IMAX footage as was in "The Dark Knight" three and a half years ago. And it works ridiculously well when it's shows up. It's hard not to fall into the mysticism of the screen at times, with the music, sound, and sight creating such a jacked experience. Bird cranks up the intensity and insane joy with every tool he has at his disposal. It's never a serious ordeal, and Brad absolutely knows and embraces that fact.
Anything that can possibly constitute an action sequence in this film becomes such. You want examples? Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner are trying to get in the train car to rendezvous with their team, and their attempt to make it in to the car becomes a jaunty and sporadic chase scene. There are a lot of ridiculous moments like that in this film, and it doesn't shy away from them. Are these guys trained professionals? Sure. Are they up to the task currently at hand? No, and the film makes a good job of stating that. When they're going for a jump, they don't just land perfectly. They hit their head or sprain their knee on something nearly every single time.
And even the bigger action sequences don't really need to happen the way they do. Breaking into the Kremlin? Scaling the Burj Khalifa? A finale in Mumbai? None of this needs to happen, but are we ever complaining about it? No, because Brad's pack is too busy making sure we're having an insanely good time most of the way through. That "most of the way" constitutes about 90 minutes. The last 30 of the film are merely okay, but they've got a story to finish off. They do a fine job ending it in a kind of interesting way, but it would have been fantastic if the final action sequence were any bit as intense as the extended sequence in Dubai.
How are the actors here? They're pretty good for what is asked of them. They are playing typical field agent archetypes, but why change it if it's not broken? Paula Patton packs some sass in with a role that's mostly just emotional. Simon Pegg is just brilliant here, with every single facial gesture garnering a giggle, of not an out-bursting laugh. Jeremy Renner is actually really good here, because he's not playing the silent weapon we thought he was from the trailers. He's a computer analyst thrown into the field where he isn't comfortable. It's nice to see that basic unease from an actor who works worst when he is in a controlled role.
Michael Nyqvist, plays a solid villain who has scarcely a single line. Lea Seydoux makes the most of what little she's offered. Same for Josh Holloway, who is at about the same level, but just a bit less. Anil Kapoor has a hilarious cameo that had me and my brother jotting down notes on how to apply his "relationship skills" to practical uses. But a lot of what made this film for me was Tom Cruise, who's been out of it largely since 1999. How do you go from "Magnolia" and "Eyes Wide Shut" and take such a tumble like he did? Here, he's not insane, but he's as strong as he's ever been in this series. He's not irritating. He knows how to throw his muscle around.
But the film would be absolutely lost without the men behind the scenes. Brad Bird, you now officially have license to make "1912" as you had originally hoped. We have the utmost of faith in your skills as a director. Michael Giacchino does his best work out of this year, not merely milking nostalgia as he did with "Super 8" or phoning it in as he did with "Cars 2". You get all the excitement in a way that's not obnoxious, and you get a sense of continuity with the last film. And final props go to cinematographer Robert Elswit for really pushing his stylistic tendencies as far as they will go without ever forgetting the necessities. All the necessities are here, and if you're left wanting something extra, you're still more than happy with what you got.