10 Years Ago, 'Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol' Gave Tom Cruise's Career New Life

(Welcome to Man on a Mission, a monthly series where we revisit the films of the Mission: Impossible franchise as we sprint toward the release of the seventh film.)

Modern action-movie franchises are typified by recurring tropes and action aesthetics. Watch an entry in the John Wick films, and you can rest assured you’ll see bloody, intense, and impressively staged fight scenes. Check out the latest Fast and Furious film, and you know that you’ll see increasingly outlandish and ridiculous chases and fights, from underground heists to scenes literally set in outer space. And if you watch a Mission: Impossible movie, you are all but guaranteed to see at least one stunt in which Tom Cruise appears to indulge in one of the most grandiose death wishes known to man.

Even now, a decade later, it’s possible that the fourth entry in the series, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, has the most jaw-dropping stunt of all, simply because of how willing Cruise was to place himself in a deadly, risky situation just to entertain an audience he can’t see.

An Animated Leap

Mission: Impossible III was well-liked by critics, and its reputation a few years later was far stronger than that of Mission: Impossible 2, in spite of the 2000 film vastly outgrossing it at the box office. But the intervening few years were spotty for star Tom Cruise. After the very public controversies he courted (and largely created for himself) related to his Scientology beliefs and his relationship with Katie Holmes, films like Valkyrie and Lions for Lambs fizzled at the box office, and more action-heavy fare like Knight and Day failed to make an impact. (Lions for Lambs is the last straight-up drama Cruise has appeared in. Just about everything since that time has been either a full-on action/genre film, or a film with elements of action, like Valkyrie. The jukebox musical Rock of Ages is the exception to this rule.) The only late-2000s film featuring Cruise that raised his profile in a good way was Tropic Thunder, the outrageous comedy in which he appeared in prosthetics as an obnoxious and aggressive Hollywood executive.

The one standard for Cruise was the Mission: Impossible franchise. Even with the third film being less successful at the box office, Paramount was willing to pursue a fourth entry. As with the previous three entries, Cruise would work with a different director, though J.J. Abrams would shift to a position he’s become vastly more comfortable with throughout his career, as producer. (His Bad Robot Productions shingle has produced all remaining Mission: Impossible films, including the upcoming entries.) In some ways, the choice for the director of the fourth entry made vastly more sense than Abrams did. But just as Abrams made the jump from television to feature films with Mission: Impossible III, so too would the Ghost Protocol director jump: from animation to live-action.

By the late 2000s, Brad Bird had proven himself to be one of the great living animation filmmakers. He was invited to join the braintrust at Pixar Animation Studios earlier in the decade, serving as the first filmmaker to be both writer and director, helming the dazzling and propulsive superhero action-comedy The Incredibles. Upon the success of that 2004 film, he took over the struggling production of a story of a rat in France who wants to cook, and turned it into Ratatouille, the best film Pixar has ever made. And if those titles weren’t enough, he’d previously written and directed The Iron Giant, a fine feature debut, and served as creative consultant on the first eight seasons (AKA the best seasons) of The Simpsons. But Bird hadn’t directed live-action…until Cruise and Abrams took a chance on the animation filmmaker (roughly around the same time that Disney was taking a chance on fellow Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton with John Carter).

The Next Ethan Hunt

There’s one other aspect of Ghost Protocol that serves as the production considering taking a chance on an untested quantity. Early in the film’s production, there were whispers that perhaps it was time for Cruise to move on, or pass the torch symbolically. Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit confirmed as much a couple years ago: the film was originally meant to end with Ethan becoming the next Secretary of the IMF, with another agent taking over in the field.

Just as the public seemed to move past Tom Cruise in the late 2000s, the thinking went, maybe Ethan Hunt needed to take a rest, especially with the star approaching his 50th birthday. (He turned 50 just six months after Ghost Protocol was released in theaters.) Enter Jeremy Renner, the Academy Award-nominated breakout star of Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker. That film’s success led to some big-deal roles for Renner: he was going to be the next Jason Bourne in The Bourne Legacy, he got a meaty supporting role in The Town that netted him his second consecutive Oscar nod; and he was going to be one of The Avengers as gifted archer Hawkeye. But he approached receiving another feather in his cap: being the next Ethan Hunt.

That, at least, is part of the story of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. The film spends its first half in Eastern Europe, as Ethan is broken out of a Moscow prison to help out on a mission with two newer IMF agents: Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and a now-in-the-field Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, who joins Ving Rhames here as a rare returning cast member). Ethan presumes their breaking him out must mean things are worse on the outside. And as you’d expect, Ethan’s right: they soon learn that a mysterious, fiercely intelligent, and obsessed nuclear strategist, Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), is trying to get his hands on nuclear weapons to invoke the apocalypse and restart with a new world order. When an attempt to stop Hendricks from getting valuable intel at the Kremlin goes south, the IMF is blamed for a massive explosion at the Russian landmark. As you may already know, the U.S. President has to invoke ghost protocol. (Or, if you were online enough a decade ago, “ghotocol”. Do you remember “ghotocol”? Good times.)

Ghost protocol, as explained by the oft-mentioned but now finally seen IMF Secretary (an uncredited Tom Wilkinson), means that Ethan, Jane, and Benji, and a single caravan of equipment are all that remains of the IMF. Well…them and IMF analyst William Brandt (Renner), who soon begins carrying himself with a bit more physical aplomb than the traditional analyst would. But he’s onboard for the ride after he and Ethan survive an attack that offs the Secretary. That attack occurs after what is truly the most hilariously demented moment in any Mission: Impossible film, when Ethan draws a detailed police-sketch-style drawing of Hendricks on the palm of his hand in the span of 15 seconds and demands that Brandt identify the person.

Hanging On for Dear Life

Plot is rarely important in the Mission: Impossible films, but it feels especially unimportant in Ghost Protocol. (The script is credited to Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, but a couple of years after they worked together for the first time on Valkyrie, Cruise enlisted Christopher McQuarrie to revise the script, in an uncredited capacity. It’s a collaboration that has led to many fruitful results.) The premise of the film is, in its own way, very much the same as it is in every Mission: the IMF is whittled down to a bare few, and in hoping to win the day, they must prove their own viability as an organization. Perhaps the best running gag of Ghost Protocol is that the equipment the IMF has now, at least the bare-bones gadgets that our remaining quartet can access, are woefully unable to actually do the job. Remember the masks of previous entries? They’re gone here because, in a key moment, the mask-making machine that Benji has brought with him conks out. The infamous “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds” device? It’s on the fritz – Ethan has to bang on an old-school telephone booth to make the tape blow up, like he’s jostling a stodgy desktop computer.

The most obvious example of technology making things harder for Ethan and his crew comes in the middle of a centerpiece sequence, primarily set at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. There are many contenders for this title, but the 30-minute section in this film’s middle, from when Ethan and the agents arrive in Dubai to the conclusion of a race between Ethan and Hendricks through a sandstorm, is the single greatest section in any of these movies. There’s much more to the sequence than the part you remember – the IMF team has to fool a wily assassin (Lea Seydoux) who previously killed Jane’s boyfriend and fellow agent, while also fooling Hendricks’ henchman and a hapless nuclear physicist, trying to swap out real nuclear codes for fake ones and retrieving the real ones before any baddies use them.

But before any of that goes down, they have to get access to the security center at the Burj Khalifa, which means that Ethan has to break into a server room from the outside…of the tallest building in the world. Ghost Protocol, above all else, is known for the image of Tom Cruise climbing up the side of the Burj Khalifa, with just his hands and feet holding him up. (Ethan is supposed to be aided by two powerful gloves that adhere to the windows of the Burj, but they stop working almost as soon as he starts climbing.)

Watching the scene now, it’s a little difficult to communicate exactly how breathtaking it was to behold the vertiginous sight of Tom Cruise hanging by almost literally a thread in a proper IMAX theater. (Bird, to his credit, advocated for filming roughly 30 minutes of the film with IMAX cameras, as opposed to the film simply being placed in IMAX theaters without using the tech itself.) The shot of Ethan, wearing goggles to protect his eyes from the gusting wind, slowly approaching the side of the building was presented with the aspect ratio gradually shifting from 2.35:1 to 1.66:1, a shift that feels mammoth on an IMAX screen. Rarely has the IMAX tagline that you can “be part” of a movie felt more apt – watching Tom Cruise desperately ascend the Burj Khalifa is thrilling enough, but in IMAX, it felt like the audience was climbing up with him.

A Template for the Future

If there is anything to truly criticize with the Dubai section of Ghost Protocol, it’s that the film cannot possibly approach the high quality of its middle portion elsewhere. Throughout, it’s eminently clear that Brad Bird is as gifted a filmmaker when working in the medium of live-action as he is in animation. Even the spatial geography of Ethan and a fellow inmate he’s breaking out in the opening sequence is communicated clearly, which should not feel revolutionary to the modern viewer, but is simply because of how few action films are staged and choreographed coherently. In the final chunk of the film, set in Mumbai, Ethan’s battle with the maniacally determined Hendricks in a revolving and rotating circular parking garage is carefully staged to heighten the suspense. The sequence can’t hold a candle to the mid-section, but it’s here in Ghost Protocol that an important element of the first entry in the series is brought back to the fore: action that you can actually visually understand.

It’s a stylistic choice that hasn’t been consistent in each Mission: Impossible – whatever else is true of the third film, Abrams’ directing style is intentionally jittery and harder to visually parse. But clean, crisply shot action is now a hallmark of the franchise, thanks in no small part to Bird’s outstanding work in Ghost Protocol. Reviews on the film were positive, by far the highest to date in the series. And more importantly for Paramount, audiences flocked to the return of Ethan Hunt in droves: inflation aside, Ghost Protocol was the highest-grossing entry in the franchise worldwide to date, and nearly outgrossed the second film domestically.

Considering that the film doesn’t end as was originally planned, it was a clear-cut case of audiences willing to embrace Cruise as a movie star once more, at least in this specific role. Renner’s character William Brandt sticks around at the end, and the Mumbai finale even gives Brandt a brief visual callback to the fantastic CIA break-in sequence of the original Mission: Impossible. But it’s clear that Hunt is still calling the shots, a creative decision Elswit (in the above link) acknowledges occurred thanks to the arrival of Christopher McQuarrie to the production. As noted above, McQuarrie’s connection to Cruise led to some major creative success.

Next Time: McQuarrie moves beyond just being an uncredited writer, taking the reins with a Rogue Nation.

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