“Good afternoon, director Brad Bird. The situation is this: The economy is still in the dumps. People are spending money on jumbo bundles of ramen instead of going to see The Sitter. The 3-D thing doesn’t seem to be the draw it once was, the Harry Potter series has been spooled out to the very end of the reel and, really, how much longer will folks actually pay to see Transformers flicks? I’m sure you can appreciate the terrible peril in which the movie industry finds itself. And while we thought for a moment about producing a thoughtful, original, big-budget blockbuster, wiser heads prevailed and decided that what moviegoers really need is another sequel.
“Mission: Impossible was a natural choice.
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to create something that feels fresh and exciting while using the same franchise tropes and lines that date back to the late 1960s. Create a plot using the studio’s patented script-o-matic device and input the following variables: ‘rogue Russians,’ ‘Dubai,’ ‘nuclear war’ and ‘explosions.’ Make sure you add several exclamation marks after that last one. And be sure to incorporate a number of super-cool gadgets, death-defying stunts (maybe have your hero run down the side of a skyscraper or something).
“In the interest of time, we’ve assembled your team for you: Tom Cruise will, naturally, star—reprising his role as superspy Ethan Hunt. He will be assisted by up-and-comer Jeremy Renner (we’re grooming him to become the focal point of the series once Cruise no longer looks good sans shirt), beautiful Paula Patton and quirky British comic Simon Pegg.
“Brad, we know this is your first live-action film, but don’t sweat it. We spoke with the Secretary about your work on Ratatouille and The Incredibles, and he’s confident you can tell a good story. In fact, he’s hoping you can actually tune up this vehicle a bit.
“Oh, and speaking of cars, we almost forgot to tell you that we’ve signed a weighty product-placement contract with BMW. The script-o-matic will build that in if you input the word ‘shill.’
“Good luck, Brad. You’re on your own now. If the movie tanks, the studio will disavow any knowledge of actually hiring you. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.”
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Most of us would agree that trying to save the world from nuclear holocaust is a good thing, so right from the get-go these Impossible Missions Force agents have that going for them. And they constantly risk their lives for folks who will be (if all goes well) forever clueless as to their sacrifice. Their enemies are out to kill them. Their own government is always threatening to disown them. And yet Hunt and Co. press on, because they’re the only ones who can. The determination they display is, quite frankly, inspiring.
The fact that the spies work as a team is another positive. While some previous Mission: Impossible incarnations cast Ethan as almost a solo superhero getting just ancillary support from his cohorts, now he’s fully embedded in his unit. “The only thing that functioned properly was this team,” Ethan says.
We learn that Ethan fabricated his wife’s death in order to protect her, but that fabrication also means he sacrificed his ability to be with her. We could—and will—quibble with the details, but couldn’t—and won’t—with the idea that Ethan would punt his own happiness for the safety and well-being of his wife, which is a grand expression of selfless love. “It wasn’t your job to protect her,” he tells someone who was supposedly watching over her. “It was mine.”
An evil Russian named Hendricks—who claims that nuclear war may be an “unpleasant but necessary part of evolution”—offers up a strange petition to the heavens as his nefarious plan comes together: “May there be peace on earth,” he says, eyes cast skyward.
Women sport low necklines and other curve-hugging attire. Ethan is shown shirtless. Two agents kiss as part of a ruse.
Agent Jane Carter seduces an Indian media mogul in a complex sting operation. (Her dress showcases her cleavage and leg.) He asks if she wants to see his private art collection (the key word for him is private) and leads her through a gallery of erotic Indian art. (We see paintings of couples engaged in foreplay; one features an exposed breast). In the gallery, Jane twists the mogul’s arm and slaps his face—actions that he interprets as a rough prelude to sex.
Jane and the mogul eventually wind up in his bedroom where she puts him in a stranglehold and threatens to kill him. After he tells her what she needs to know, she injects him with a drug that knocks him out.
Surrounding that scene, the body count mounts as we wade through dozens of fistfights, shootouts, car chases and explosions. At times the action feels fairly cartoonish—not too far removed from the stormtroopers who get mowed down in the Death Star. At others, it can feel harsh and bleak.
Hendricks kidnaps a weapons expert, holding his family hostage until the man can get a job done for him. When the deed is done, the weapons guy asks if he can rejoin his wife and son. The bad guy says yes—and then shoots him several times in the chest. He suggests that the rest of the family was killed earlier.
Two men are shot in a moving vehicle, one graphically in the head. Two others escape from the car while under heavy fire as the vehicle sinks into a river; they use one of the dead bodies as a decoy. Two women fight in a high-rise. It ends when one of them gets kicked out of a window. An agent shoots a bevy of pursuing enemies, only to be shot several times in the gut by an assassin. The assassin clutches her victim close to her, as if in an embrace—shooting him twice more to finish the job.
We see characters nursing ugly wounds to the face and holding clothes to plug bullet holes. Ethan escapes from prison after his partners initiate a riot. Prisoners beat on each other and on the guards. Ethan knocks around several people—both prisoners and guards—as he escapes. There’s a massive fight in a parking garage: Combatants injure one another; an arm and a leg are broken in snap-crackle-pop fashion. The fight concludes when someone leaps off a ledge, grotesquely hitting the ground. (He survives the fall only briefly.) Ethan crashes his car into an oncoming SUV, sending the latter flying. Someone drives another car off a ledge. The vehicle is totaled; the driver survives—thanks to a timely airbag. (BMW’s next ad: “If you drive off a cliff, our airbags will save you!”)
Ethan, we’re told, killed six Serbians “in cold blood” to avenge his wife’s murder. Those revenge killings are problematic enough, naturally … but then when we learn that the woman is actually alive, this adds another ethical problem: Were these deaths “needed” just to preserve her safety? Were they part of another IMF mission? Both? It’s a bit unclear, though we do know his actions got Ethan sent to a pretty harsh prison. Either way, the idea of heroic Ethan Hunt killing so callously is bothersome (and, frankly, out of character).
One s-word. We hear about a dozen milder profanities including “a‑‑” “d‑‑n” and “h‑‑‑.” There are a half-dozen misuses of God’s name. An apparent Russian swear word is uttered; for those of us who don’t speak the language, we see in the subtitles a series of asterisks and symbols. A man hoists his middle finger.
Good guys and bad guys alike drink whiskey, beer and champagne. Several smoke cigarettes. We see a poster of a Shirley Temple-looking child smoking a pipe. A knock-out drug is administered.
Spy work—particularly cinematic spy work—involves a lot of subterfuge, misdirection and some serious fibbing. Ethan and his fellows constantly mislead their enemies—and sometimes their own government in a wink-wink sort of way. They steal cellphones, clothes and even a car while escaping from or chasing down evildoers. They deface and damage private and public property. Ethan flees law enforcement officials.
It’s not really in our purview to say whether this kind of behavior is justified or not (not wanting to cross swords with any real-life secret agents who might be reading), but we can say that none of these actions should be encouraged among the rest of us.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol has its share of content concerns. Characters kill and die and lie and sometimes behave very badly. But since the films doesn’t push its PG-13 rating, it somehow feels, as far as actioners go, relatively clean. The bullets fly with alarming frequency, but harsh profanity is restricted to a single s-word and a finger gesture. Bombs go off, but clothes stay on. Some of what we hear Ethan did is troubling. But what we actually see him do is better, content-wise, than anything we absorb from Jason Bourne or James Bond these days.
Brad Bird succeeded in his mission: He made a decades-old franchise feel fresh and exciting, even while staying true to its roots and tropes. He crafted a film that, while not nearly as innocent as, say, The Incredibles, still seems to keep (at least partially) in mind that kids do go to see this stuff.
Not that they necessarily should.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.