There's an inescapable irony in seeing a director celebrated by his unusually layered animation features take charge of a blockbuster franchise masterminded by its star and known for its bang-for-the-buck eye-candy coefficient. However, the fourth installment of the big-screen adaptation of Bruce Geller's fondly remembered TV series marks a distinct improvement in the franchise Tom Cruise is hanging his contemporary relevance on. The Incredibles and Ratatouille director Brad Bird, making his live-action feature debut, proves surprisingly adept at dealing with these contradictions; his sense of fluid motion, coming from a gravity-less discipline such as animation, guarantees that the suspension of disbelief required by the Mission: Impossible rulebook is handled with the requisite levity and a surprising clarity of staging that suggests a visual imagination at work.
This is important because plot has never been the strong suit of the M:I films, being as they are a succession of highly elaborate illusions piled on a top of a thin storyline - here, a rogue nuclear terrorist that plans to detonate a nuclear war and blame it on the IMF, something that the Bond movies have already explored previously. Therefore, Mr. Bird focuses on the illusion to the detriment of everything else, to the risk of extending them for far too long (the Dubai and car silo episodes are stretched to the point of ridiculousness, and the director doesn't have John Woo's chops to pull it off as successfully). This reinforces the video-game aspect of the script by Alias writers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, as well the finger of that series' mastermind J. J. Abrams, credited as producer here, who directed the third M:I film and whose narrative playfulness is much in evidence. But it also underlines just how cartoonish the whole thing are - and it's by playing along with the live-action cartoon angle that Mr. Bird gives the film the lightness of touch it needs to make it as an entertaining two hours.
The film is also much helped by the fact that, for one, Mr. Cruise is not exclusively center stage - even though he is the nominal star, his is a lighter performance than his usual (the much unfairly derided Knight and Day seems to have done him some good), and the supporting cast is well-chosen, with series newcomers Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton fitting right in and a returning Simon Pegg providing stellar comic relief. It will be interesting to see just what Mr. Bird will do next with his San Francisco earthquake project, since the needs of a well-oiled franchise come first in a film such as this; but this is a surprisingly cheerful start.
Tom Cruise; Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov.
Director, Brad Bird; screenplay, Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec; cinematography, Robert Elswit (colour, Panavision widescreen); music, Michael Giacchino; production designer, Jim Bissell; costume designer, Michael Kaplan; editor, Paul Hirsch; visual effects supervisor, John Knoll; producers, Mr. Cruise, J. J. Abrams, Bryan Burk (Paramount Pictures, Skydance Productions, Tom Cruise Productions, Bad Robot), USA, 2011, 133 minutes. (US distributor and world sales, Paramount Pictures).
Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), December 14th 2011.