'M:I 4': Like a Superhero Movie, but Less Down-to-Earth

Gadgets and stunts, not people, star in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

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The most interesting thing about the fourth Mission: Impossible film is that it dares to challenge the idea that spy movies should be complicated. There’s no need for a convoluted, multi-layered plot loaded with double and triple agents acting on conflicting motivations, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol says. Having, over the course of three sequels, replaced the first movie’s penchant for actual espionage in favor of popcorn kung fu and big explosions, the franchise now presents us a world with character roles clearly defined as good or evil, never blurring the line between the two. Despite the trailer’s attempts to convince us otherwise, everyone is exactly who you think they are.

The film’s premise is that agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team are operating on their own after being framed for bombing of the Kremlin and are now wanted by the Russian and (presumably) American governments. But the story line takes a back seat to breathtaking shots of expensive cars and Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. To be sure, this is what we’ve come to expect from the franchise ever since M:I 2 opened with our hero scaling a cliff face in a tank top. If you’re really clamoring for a mumbling, mind-humping spy-fest, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is still in theaters.

What Ghost Protocol more closely resembles is a traditional superhero tale. The powers at the disposal of Hunt and co. seem limitless at times. The agents can leap from buildings and land safely, levitate in magnetic suits, scale walls like Spider-Man, commandeer a computer system at will, and zip around the world with ease (despite being wanted for terrorism). What’s more, everyone is a certified martial arts mega-master whose punches are strictly one-shot-one-kill.

But modern successes like the The Dark Knight—and even failures like Superman Returns—have shown that unlimited power is nearly nothing as a source of engagement if there's nothing at stake for the hero beyond the fate of the world. Despite a gadget array that could make Batman blush, Ghost Protocol refuses to give its cast any depth or emotional investment in the situation beyond the fact that they’re secret agents who must stop a nuclear holocaust. Even the villain, a stock madman with his hand on a button, has no value outside being the source of conflict. It's true, the journey from point A to point B via the team’s endless supply of fantastical gizmos and game plans is initially thrilling (anyone with a fear of heights is strongly advised to take a bathroom break during the Burj Khalifa scene), but the characters arrive at a destination only to tee up the next set piece.

Yes, there’s a revenge plot involving a member of Hunt’s team and her dead lover’s assassin, but it’s resolved halfway through the movie when she kicks said assassin out a 130-story window. The only other sub-plot involves Tom Cruise getting over the death of his wife, but the movie’s final, wholly unnecessary twist leaves that struggle hollow and inconsequential. The only thing left for the good guys to do is save the world, which, spoiler alert, they totally do.

So, is it cynical to say that this movie exists solely to show off a few big set pieces, Paula Patton’s cleavage, and all the latest Apple gizmos? Yes, but it's hard not to be cynical when the most edifying part of the film is Tom Cruise demonstrating the safety features of a BMW during a 100-meter drop. Maybe we have the Bond formula for glitz, glamour and muscle cars to thank for this, but at least those movies flash a hints of self-awareness and reveled in the absurdity of it all. Cruise, on the other hand, takes his product placement way too seriously.