I can’t say I’m surprised that the best action film of 2011 came in the form of animation maestro Brad Bird‘s live action directorial debut. Take a close look at his three earlier films; the criminally underrated Warner Bros. feature ‘The Iron Giant‘, and his two Pixar pictures, the exhilarating superhero caper ‘The Incredibles’ and the insightful artistic comedy ‘Ratatouille’. All three films, in addition to their strong characters and distinctive styles, boast extraordinary action sequences, the likes of which rarely seen in live action filmmaking. After all, truly effective cinematic action is all about telling a coherent and consistently surprising story, and it doesn’t matter what form that takes. It’s one of the grandest — and therefore, one of the hardest — magic tricks in existence. Most of what passes for action is actually noise. True action relies on suspense, clarity, easily discernible rules, and character development. A giant robot shooting a gun is not action. A giant robot shooting a gun while it avoids being shot by another giant robot is not action. A giant robot having to shoot another robot before a bomb goes off is not necessarily action either, but it is getting close. Unfortunately, that third iteration is about as far as most filmmakers will ever go. At best, they will add more robots, guns, and bombs, but they will not use these elements to tell an effective story. This is because the clarity required to deliver an edge-of-your-seat action sequence is not just external; primarily, it applies to the characters, and through the characters to the audience. Bird’s ability to quickly build bridges between characters and audiences is the foundation of his cross-medium action expertise. It’s why ‘Ghost Protocol’ is not only the best film in the ‘Mission: Impossible’ series, or the best action vehicle of 2011, but indeed one of the best of the past ten years.
Without doubt the best scene in the film is Ethan Hunt’s unfortunate climb of the Burj Hotel, which, in case you didn’t know, is Dubai’s crown jewel and the tallest building in the world. The way Bird eases the audience into the scenario is masterful. First, he takes advantage of the IMAX format to immerse us in a tremendous establishing shot of the tower. Scale matters. If, for example, you want a giant robot fighting another giant robot whilst humans run in terror at their feet, you should probably pull the camera back and hold it steady so we can drink in the sheer and literal weight of the conflict. It’s ultimately about sympathy; if we’re intended to connect with the five-foot humans running around, the composition needs to center on both their perspective and their emotions within the context of character. Put someone on the ground whose reactions matter to the audience, and have that person change over time as the scenario evolves in logical ways. In the climbing scene, Bird does this immediately; as soon as the IMF team discovers that they have to send someone to climb the tower, we see Ethan’s mix of fear and determination, and we connect with it because we are, in a sense, going out there with him. Sympathy has been established — we know how high the tower is, and dread it just as much as Ethan does, but we also know that if he doesn’t go out the IMF team can’t stop the bad guys. Suspense and clarity are in full force. What about rules? Clearly, Ethan requires some apparatus to make the ascent, and the team provides him with futuristic gloves that glow blue when adhesive and red when they fail. “Blue is glue,” Benji, the tech expert, offers, “And red is dead.” As long as Ethan makes the proper motions when climbing, the gloves should work; but what happens if they simply quit on him? As you can see, rules, clarity, and suspense feed into each other. Every subsequent development strengthens the bond between the Ethan and the audience, and makes his eventual improvised descent — which is highly reminiscent of the original ‘Die Hard’ — one of the most thrilling cinematic moments since Indy went under the truck in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark‘. The Dubai scenes alone would have made ‘Ghost Protocol’ a standout picture, but Bird and company keep up the intensity through the final act, and it all comes together in a highly satisfying way.
‘Ghost Protocol’ is an extremely effective piece of escapist entertainment, more faithful in tone and structure to Bruce Geller’s television series than the other entries, and pleasantly reminiscent of the golden age James Bond films. Indeed, it’s more spectacular and fun than any Bond since Timothy Dalton fell out the back of a plane in ‘The Living Daylights‘. Perhaps Brad Bird could inject some vigor into that spy series, as well; as the box office numbers have shown, ‘Mission: Impossible’ is more alive than ever, simply because of Bird’s willingness to get swept up in the exhilarating places the genre can go. Darkness, grit, and serious themes can make for compelling stories, but they can also be as predictable and disappointing as fluff. Balance gravity with levity, however, and you have the most potent concoction in the business. Once you have a taste, you’ll always be looking for your next fix, and I’m glad to say that after ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ got me hooked, ‘Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol’ satisfies my need for a cinematic high. Brad Bird, you’re with Steven Spielberg as one of the great pushers of our day.