It's official. I'm out of excuses for not bringing this column back, be it with less of a bang than a slight ease-in, so another welcome to the retooled "Top Shots". You may have noticed in prior lists that the amount of dynamic shots has a potential to vary from film to film. Occasionally, I'm just stretching to a ridiculous point to bring ten shots in, so having a sense of rotation in the list is as freeing as it is stressful. Not having an extra five shots to lean back on means much more care in picking five for the top, so this week felt the need for something that wasn't so incredibly overbearing in terms of numerous cinematic opportunities.
Seeing as "The Bourne Legacy" is out this weekend, which not only features star Jeremy Renner, but also cinematographer Robert Elswit, the choice for this week wasn't just obvious. It was delightful, given it's a film I have no problem seeing repeatedly. "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" made the cut for my Top 20 of 2011 literally under the wire, given an update to replace "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" at #20 for something I genuinely had a great deal more encouragement towards. It's a film that not only knows how to have a ridiculously good time, but to evoke some tangible emotional themes throughout that the casual viewer might overlook.
The cinematography by Robert Elswit never once overshadows the action going on, and quite often aids it in slight ways. The slight wavering light at the end of a sewer tunnel, signaling a launch of the film's first major action set-piece. The below-shot of Tom Cruise standing precariously from a ledge, omitting the comfort of ground-level view. The at-this-point customary "fixed camera car crash" shot that signals a launch into the film's more intense interludes. Even the atmospherics going to make everything look hypnotizing and appealing were under consideration, but it came down to five that found curious, expert, or simply playful ways of heightening this film experience.
5. Skipping Water
For all the intensity in the action sequences, the stakes in this film are never to the point of negating any sense of fun from proceedings. The role of Russian intelligence operative Anatoly is really just to chase Ethan and his team around the world, and then get his ass kicked every time he gets close to success. He really doesn't have a clue what's going on, so every aside that's given to him does have the undertone of some sad joke on him. That reason really gives a context for this shot's spot on the list, with a stream of water skipping past Ethan, camera reeling all the way to follow it, until it lands upon the hapless Russian spy. It's quick. It's fun. It's damn easy to miss, but it's a show of how many slight, invisible tricks are played to keep things at going with pop and enthusiasm.
4. A Tale of Two Stories
As fun as this film has a tendency to be, it does layer some strong tension from piece-to-piece, most especially in the case of the Dubai sequence, where everything goes wrong and the team has to cope with each shift. Bird and Elswit do a good job dangling the uncertainty of their situation, and how easily everything be upended. The shot above is pretty much two shots, since I'm certain there's a cut in between the transitions and that they used the exact same room. All the same, they keep pace, placement, and movement in check between both, in a shot that's both a flourish of the situation, and a further raising of stakes at a point where it's possible the life expectancy of these individuals is about to drop severely.
3. Enter Ethan Hunt
"Mission: Impossible" may have been going on for just four films now, but it feel generally quite young. "Ghost Protocol" serves very much as a reintroduction into this world, which must provide a rather strong entrance for its protagonist. More than that, Tom Cruise entering the film is always something you want give presence, because the guy is the definition of movie star. Bird doesn't quite throw the guy at us in a way that overbuilds his presence, but with "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" going on in the background, the placement of Hunt biding his time with his little stone, the slow push in as his face alights with anticipation. It just brings us back in with a warm embrace.
2. Don't Blow It
And here I was previously thinking this film deserved all its merit based on the nail-biting set-pieces, but there are some strong character arcs oozing from start-to-finish. In reference to the team, Ethan is peeved from the beginning of being saddled with Benji and Jane "to save time". This group isn't experience, Ethan's been out of the game for a while, and they just happen to be going up against the nuclear apocalypse. Simon Pegg's Benji is often the best way to externalize this, a guy who is just anxious to be in the field, and then overcome by the stress of it. After their cover is nearly blown because of Benji, Ethan gives him a strong, restraining embrace. The intimacy of that shot is intense, and it's given personal beats that many could just breeze over.
1. Top of the World
The strongest shots are the ones we think about over and over again in reference to a film, and this shot is something that only "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" is known for. No other action film has its protagonist scaling the outside of the tallest building in the world without a harness. This shot is obviously given so much more weight by its context on the IMAX screen, opening up the shot in a way that makes you feel like you'll fall into it, and that's literally what I felt. This vertigo-inducing shot is so specific, on the nose, and it puts you in a hazardous situation that makes you wonder how they did that without feeling as trepidatious about it as you do now. It's the scene everyone talks about, because it's entirely theirs and you can tell the effort that went into every beat.
So, what do you think of my picks, and what are yours? Comment below, and we'll be back again next Friday!