Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol

I have one of these. It's awesome.

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.

James’ Top Ten Directors (Without An Order)

Sorry about the long hiatus, folks, but I kind of lost my drive to write.  The good news is, I did regain my drive to screenwrite, and I’ve got a solid idea progressing nicely.

It occurred to me that a major obstacle to the success of this blog is the lack of variety in articles.  Sure, we’ve got reviews and the ‘Elements’ series, but what about top-tens and other die hard blog tropes?  Ain’t nothing wrong with a good trope.  So, here we go.  My top ten favorite directors.  Minus the numbers one expects from such things.

Steven Spielberg

Spielberg shades his eyes because they're too bright for you.  Hence the hat, even without the glasses.

Spielberg shades his eyes because they're too bright for you. Hence the hat, even without the glasses.

Here’s the why. He made ‘Raiders’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Jaws’, and your mother’s amazing plasticine face.

Christopher Nolan

I think he's an accomplshed actor, too.  Didn't he play a James Bond villain at one point...?  No?

I think he's an accomplished actor, too. Didn't he play a James Bond villain at one point...? No?

Here’s the why.  He saved Batman’s batfilm batexistence batfrom bathell.  He’s really good at screwing with your mind, even in relatively straightforward movies like ‘The Dark Knight’.  On the extreme end of intentional mindscrews, of course, is ‘Memento’, which is referenced in way too many screenwriting books. C’mon, people, we’re novices, if we’re reading your book looking for advice, don’t mock us with a challenge to repaint the Mona Lisa.  Also, Christopher Nolan is the only fellow I would trust to remake ‘Blade Runner’.

Quentin Tarantino

That's the German three.

That's the German three.

Here’s the why. Quentin cares enough about his stories that he lets them gestate for ridiculous periods of time.  That way, he doesn’t rely on formula, but delivers a compelling and original story that breaks a lot of “rules” and yet somehow still works.

Peter Jackson

Before

Before

After.

After.

Here’s the why. He directed ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, which kicked everybody’s ass, except J.R.R. Tolkien himself, who was on the moon fighting vampires when it was released. Mr. Jackson has since lost a lot of girth and become a Hollywood heavyweight, shepherding up-and-coming directors and projects, like Neill Blomkamps’ ‘District 9’, which was like the ’80s sci-fi craze had come back to life with a blood transfusion from Jason Bourne. So he’s got that going for him.

J.J. Abrams

He is not clueless.  Merely geeked the heck out.

He is not clueless. Merely geeked the heck out.

Here’s the why. He’s great at fusing genre films with solid, emotional stories.  Sometimes too good.  I didn’t expect the opening of ‘Mission: Impossible III’ to be nearly as traumatizing as it was, but that’s okay.

Alfred Hitchcock

Nobody does it better...

Nobody does it better...

Here’s the why. Hitchcock represents the majority of exposure pretty much anyone has to the silent era and its powerful ‘show, don’t tell’ ethos. Thanks to this training as a silent film director, Hitch kicks lots of ass in the suspense department, and his stuff is really memorable.  Every suspense movie, ever, is compared to Hitch.  Not to his movies, no, to the man himself.  Why is he laughing in that photo?  Why?  Why!?

Brad Bird

Let's see... Bird pun... Bird pun...

Let's see... Bird pun... Bird pun...

Here’s the why. Brad Bird is another fellow who can blend genre with emotional, original story. So far, his works have been fantastic animated movies, such as ‘The Iron Giant’, and Pixar’s ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Ratatouille’, but he may be making his first foray into live action soon. Whatever the case, Brad Bird’s imagination is sure to soar.  Ha.  Ha.

Sergio Leone

OVIEIf he looks fazed it's only because he spent all his energy making THE BEST MOVIES EVER.

If he looks fazed it's only because he spent all his energy making THE BEST MOVIES EVER

Here’s the why. Sergio Leone is the godfather of the Spaghetti Western subgenre.   Since he’s passed away, there’s no point in making Spaghetti Westerns anymore.  Unless you’re Quentin Tarantino or something.

Duncan Jones

This is what happens when you put out the fire with gasoline.

This is what happens when you put out the fire with gasoline.

Here’s the why. He directed ‘Moon’, the best sci-fi film of 2009.  Strangely, he’s David Bowie’s son.  Sure, this guy’s new, but he’s awesome and he looks to be building a sweet sci-fi series.

Tim Burton

How dare you, Tim.  I used to hate your movies.  Who do you think you are?  Get out.  You misfit, you.

How dare you, Tim. I used to hate your movies. Who do you think you are? Get out. You misfit, you.

Here’s the why. He’s quirky.   He’s got scissors for hands.  He was not permitted to eat sweets as a child — because his father was (not) Christopher Lee.  His movies are bizzare.   I don’t like the ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’.   I do love ‘Batman’.  Why, Tim?  Why do I admire you, so?

And, that’s my top ten.  Patrick should be coming out with his soon.  Very soon.  You hear that, Patrick?  WRITE THE DAMN LIST.

What?  Oh, okay.  Bye for now.