Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol is the most commercially and critically successful Mission: Impossible movie, and it’s easy to see why. Cruise and company are all in top form, Brad Bird blows the doors off his live-action directorial debut, and the story utterly nails the sweet spot between action and intrigue that we first saw in Mission: Impossible III and which convinced us that maybe these new Mission: Impossible movies might work after all.
The story involves Hunt being called in to stop Cobalt, a rogue nuclear weapons strategist who decides to kick off a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. Hunt and newly promoted field agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) infiltrate the Kremlin in an effort to stop Cobalt, but that ends up with the Kremlin’s destruction, a state of near-war between the U.S. and Russia, and the U.S. evoking Ghost Protocol—the disavowal of the entire IMF—just to give itself plausible deniability. Left out in the cold, Hunt and his crew still have to stop Cobalt with minimal support and the pursuit of vengeful Russian security forces. The team isn’t assembled so much as united by circumstance, with Hunt and Dunn joined by IMF agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and IMF intelligence analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Their hunt for Cobalt will take them to Dubai and India as they discover that Cobalt’s plans for nuclear Armageddon are a bit more doable and a bit less preventable than anybody gave him credit for. Maybe if the IMF was fully operational, this wouldn’t be such a trial, but with Hunt, Dunn, Carter and Brandt comprising the total IMF on this one, the task before them is monumental.
The best scene in the movie, by far, is the middle act in Dubai, where Hunt’s team engineers a classic Mission: Impossible switcheroo sting in which they intend to intercept both parties of a deal to swap stolen launch codes for an actual launch device. The idea is Hunt’s guys pose as either side of the transaction and get both the codes and the launch device and maybe even apprehend the assassins who started this whole mess. But bookending it are two spectacular action sequences—one where Hunt must do his trademark acrobatics bit by free climbing up the side of the world’s tallest skyscraper, and one that involves a high-speed chase through a blinding sandstorm. Throughout the movie, we swing between the finer arts of a Mission: Impossible head game, and a Mission: Impossible actioner, and it never falls out of balance. But what really makes it all work comes at the end of the Dubai sequence, when we realize that just about everybody on Hunt’s team has a pretty big secret that they’re not letting the other team members know about.
I have sometimes cocked an eyebrow over the storytelling crutch Mission: Impossible movies uses that involved some kind of disloyalty within the IMF itself. For an elite spy agency, it sure has a big betrayal issue. But I get it, though: spycraft is an inherently paranoid business in which trust is a four-letter word. But in Ghost Protocol, that untrustworthiness is turned on its head as the heroes all realize they can’t fully trust each other, even if they can all be trusted with wanting to save the world. There is something deeply corrosive to the revelation that somebody didn’t trust you enough to share their secrets with you. And after Dubai, we see that moment within the team. But more importantly, we see what living with these secrets is doing to these heroes, and we understand that saving the world might look cool as hell, but living with the baggage that comes with it is no reward.
This is especially true of Hunt. If we remember from Mission: Impossible III, he settled down with his fiancée Julia, but his life as a spy inevitably endangers her so deeply that we realize this romance can never last. But once you introduce a permanent relationship into a setting that does not allow for them, how do you course-correct without derailing the rest of the story or hand-waving things away as if they never happened? In Ghost Protocol, we learn what happened to Ethan and Julia and why Julia isn’t around for this installment. But it never feels like convenient off-screen housecleaning, and to the movie’s credit, it uses the issue as a way to further develop Ethan Hunt’s character, as well as the team members around him. A guy like Hunt might look like he’s all about his work, but he isn’t. And the more we realize that, the more realize that even with Julia off the screen, we better understand what Hunt is fighting for.
The moment of truth comes when we start to understand not just what happened to Ethan and Julia, but what happened to some of the other characters because of Ethan and Julia. When you’re a spy, the only thing more dangerous than your work is love, but that is one of the few things that makes the work worth all of the hell it puts you through. In the Mission: Impossible world, love eventually wins, but not after a whole lot of trial and tribulation. And even then, its victory can only be as mysterious and elusive as those who enjoy it. Such is life in the shadows. A distant look, a fleeting smile, a moment of recognition, and then you’re gone, off to another mission. Off to another reminder of what it is you’re fighting for. It sure isn’t the IMF or the world itself. It’s those people within either that matter to you. But that’s more than enough.