After a hiatus, marked by Tom Cruise not appearing in many terribly successful films, this franchise comes back for a fourth go-round. Though this has a welcome use of the traditional ‘light the fuse’ credits sequence, with enigmatic glimpses of scenes to come, and Michael Giacchino does some variations on Lalo Schifrin’s exciting original theme, this series has still to deliver anything on a level with an average first-two-seasons episode of the TV show it was inspired by but has always been peculiarly contemptuous of. Besides Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, who is a nebulous figure even before he flips up his hoodie to signal how disavowed he is under the title policy decision, Simon Pegg’s techie Benji – essentially a white nerd version of Greg Morris’s Barney from the TV show – stays with the team, and Ving Rhames and Michelle Monahan, from earlier instalments, have unbilled cameos. I like Monahan as an actress, but I struggled to remember who she was since it’s been a while since Mission Impossible III. If Martin Landau’s Rollin Hand had come back (casting which would not be beyond the bounds of possibility) I’d have cheered, though as a vehicle produced by its star, there remains an agenda to make Cruise look good by surrounding him with stooges.
In a tiny prologue, Josh Holloway – an action star waiting for the right part which will make him huge (I think he’d have been great as Conan) – is the agent who has replaced Hunt on the IMF. He gets killed by a French hit-woman (Léa Seydoux), prompting his co-worker/girlfriend Jane (Paula Patton) to swear revenge, and inspiring the surviving agents to break Hunt out of a Russian prison where he is doing hard time after murdering some Serbians he holds responsible for the death of his wife. The baddie this time is nuclear theorist Hendricks (Michael Nyquist, of the Swedish Millennium series), who is assembling the plot coupons – some launch codes, a satellite uplink – necessary to start a world war because he thinks it would not be a bad thing. The IMF raid the Kremlin for a mcguffin, using a neat trick with an invisible screen across a top secret corridor, but wind up disavowed dupes when Hendricks blows the building up and blames them. Hunt is disavowed (this has been overdone in the series) and the Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) killed, which means that his associate Brandt (Jeremy Renner) – who quit being a field agent after blaming himself for Mrs Hunt’s death and is worried that Ethan will find out about this and not like him any more – joins the team. Thus balanced by two characters who can’t get close to him because of emotional baggage and a comedy guy with no feelings we have to take seriously, the vacuum that is Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt holds centre screen unthreatened and unengaged. But he does it while clinging to the outside of the world’s tallest building – now a hotel in Dubai, supplanting that office block in Kuala Lumpur Sean Connery (and Ving Rhames!) robbed in Entrapment – by magic gimmick gloves as a sandstorm rolls across the desert threateningly.
Brad Bird, in his first live-action gig, directs IMAX action/chase sequences that mostly deliver the thrills. It’s just that they’re strung together by a decidedly ropey, derivative script that never really produces a plot and suffers from the Brosnan era Bond habit of saving its weakest set-piece for the climax. Here, Hunt has to cope with the near-legendary fighting prowess we all associate with middle-aged Swedish academic crackpots in an automated Indian high-rise car park. It does have more of the old M:I buzz than previous entries, with absurd gadgets – magnetic chainmail underwear that enables Brandt to float through a giant computer sinkwell – and a nice, if ultimately pointless reveal as Hunt grabs a baddie’s face only for it to come off, revealing that he’s a more important baddie wearing one of those skintight disguise masks. Renner, whose character has a couple of knowing gay gags, fits in with this incarnation of the team, but the attractive Patton (remember her in Déjà Vu, Mirrors and Precious? No, me neither) registers as much less interesting than underused villainess Seydoux. It’s big, exciting, wasteful and forgettable, but the premise of the show – which this franchise keeps disavowing by yet again forcing the IMF to go rogue and improvise – remains potentially a winner, combining the cerebral, puzzle-based confidence trick drama with action and suspense. Written by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, of the American remake of Life on Mars.