Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol begins in Budapest. An IMF (Impossible Missions Force) agent (Josh Holloway) is on a mission, pursuing a file in a briefcase. Though he gets hold of it, and then eludes or eliminates a series of enemy agents, he is, in the end of the film’s first few minutes, shot dead himself. The route to his demise is elaborate and tense, the sort of action sequence that’s become familiar in the Mission: Impossible movies, a mix of wide and close shots, cuts on beat, all inviting you to feel aligned with the agent, or at least to feel briefly alarmed at his end.
This leads to another potential emotional connection in the film, for, as it turns out, this agent has a romantic partner, fellow IMF agent Jane (Paula Patton), who is so infuriated by his assassination—by a woman (Léa Seydoux) identified, too late on his beeping handheld device, as “Assassin”—that she takes her mission to find her very personally. We all know this is a bad idea in spy movies, and Jane will be advised of this by none other than IMF’s major agent, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), who has had his own similar experience, that is, the loss of his wife Julie (Michele Monaghan).
All this backstory means a couple of things. First, Ethan is reluctant, for a minute, to get back into the IMF fray, and in fact needs to be broken out of a Russian prison, by Jane and the super-tech Benji (Simon Pegg), brought back from the last film. (That they manage this escape under the soundtrack of Dean Martin singing “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” is both stylish and fun.) Second, Jane is not at all reluctant, and her insistence that the team (after she, Ethan, and Benji do form a team) press on to enable her vengeance makes her slightly more complicated than most girls in the IMF universe (save for TV’s Barbara Bain, whose complexities remain unplumbed to this day).
That’s not to say Jane distracts your attention much from Ethan, who is of course the film’s completely propulsive focus. Last seen in 2006’s Mission: Impossible III enjoying some modicum of bliss with Julie, Ethan doesn’t reveal just how he lost her—whether she left him or something else happened, as variously rumored among the spyfolk—until late in the film. This doesn’t so much mean he’s enigmatic as he is extra-driven, which means he’s more of the same. Ethan Hunt is always on a mission, always intense, always a hyper-version of what we might imagine Tom Cruise to be.
Such depthlessness makes Ethan a perfect action hero. He doesn’t need to be motivated. He just is. (When he does advise Jane, he makes the most obvious point, that revenge killings don’t alleviate the loss.) This time, he is looking for a Russian bad man, Hendricks, known as Cobalt (Michael Nyqvist), who’s worked out a plan for the planet in which nuclear devastation is a good thing, because it sets the stage for a worldwide starting over. Thus, as Cobalt gets nearer and nearer to getting hold of a nuclear device and codes, the clock ticks (as it must in every IMF plot), and Ethan turns increasingly intense.
His intensity is made visible in his stunts, and these are amped up exponentially in each film; here he’ll engage in a vehicular chase, infiltrate the Kremlin, and manage a couple of disguises, as well as scale the face of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. He completes each of these adventures even as the IMF has in fact disavowed his team (this would be the meaning of “ghost protocol”) and so left them with mostly malfunctioning gadgets (which grants Pegg several opportunities to perform comic exasperation and genius). This probably testifies to Ethan’s intensity, again, meaning, he essentially wills the mission into success, running headlong not only from the usual explosion in his background, but also from a sandstorm.
This insistence that he can do anything, anytime, also suggests that Ethan is built for this job, that he doesn’t just overcome error and adversity, but also plans for them. When the mask-making machine here breaks down, he figures they can run their IMF scheme without disguises, hoping against hope that the marks haven’t ever seen the people they’re scheduled to meet (to be played by Jane and the guys). Such is Ethan’s determination that when he learns the nuclear weapon has been launched, he takes but a breath before he grinds his car into gear and tell a surprised Jane that they can still stop it: and with that, va-voom, they’re screeching through traffic.
Ethan’s superficiality makes him the ideal action movie hero. For all the effort to give such figures histories, they tell their stories in stunts, in crashing cars, hanging off cliffs, surviving catastrophes. Ethan has long been presented as an innately solo action hero, for whom the wife or the IMF team—even someone as daunting as Ving Rhames—is a hindrance. This new film suggests he learns to play better with others, but only when he can forgive their mistakes and maybe recognize one or two of his own, however briefly.
As the movie emphasizes Ethan’s particular skills—his brutality, his efficiency, his utter commitment—it sets him against others who can be distracted. If Jane loses track of a moment because of her desire for revenge, or Benji might worry about a gizmo going wrong, the third add-on, Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Is the team member most needing indoctrination. Into Ethan’s all-present-all-the-time ethos.
Introduced as an analyst working for the IMF’s greatest supporter, the Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) who typically promises to disavow knowledge of their actions if they’re caught or killed, Brandt is not quite what he seems. His baggage is explicitly emotional, though he seems quite capable of forgetting all that when called on to perform brutally efficient takedowns (after a couple of these engagements, Ethan is moved to ask for his backstory: Brandt isn’t Bourne, but he’s no analyst either). When at last Brandt fesses up to the incident that’s bothering him, Ethan hardly thinks about it. He’s already focused on the next mission.