In some circles, it's called the Scrappy-Doo syndrome. Perhaps you know it by another name—the Chachi, the Mutt Williams, the Shemp—but in essence, the rule is the same: When your main character(s) can no longer sustain or inspire the big storylines, don't add fresh new faces to the mix. Just stop.
Word has it Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol might serve as a kind of torch-passing between Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner. Cruise, who turns 50 next summer and is no longer a huge draw in any summer, is reaching the point that action stardom will no longer be terribly believable. That's the conventional wisdom. Renner, fresh off back-to-back Oscar nominations (a rare feat, especially for a new star), is an actor studios are banking on to pick up some of that slack. So there is cause for concern that because Cruise can't do it much longer, the fourth chapter signals a new direction for the franchise. That's a polite way of saying this could be the Scrappy-Doo syndrome.
And then the movie opens ...
Cruise, for all the negative stuff that could be and has been said about him, is still likely the most-committed American action star onscreen. He puts himself through sheer hell on movies like this, performing many of his own stunts and taking most of his own bumps. He's in fine form here, doing perhaps more than in any impossible mission since the first. Renner, on the flip side, doesn't add much. So if this is a passing of the torch, it's a sloppy one.
The story is pretty dopey, but you probably expect that, with Russians, nukes and digital timers counting down to 00:00:00.003. It's all just window dressing. Early on, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) gets sprung from a Moscow prison by his old Impossible Missions Force friend Benji (Simon Pegg), along with a new female agent named Jane Carter (Paula Patton). Together, they're supposed to infiltrate the Kremlin and steal some state secrets, but something goes haywire, and an international incident brings the old Cold War enemies to the brink of war.
The secretary (Tom Wilkinson, in an all-too-brief cameo) informs Hunt that the White House has initiated something called Ghost Protocol, which effectively means the IMF, already a super-secret intelligence outfit, really doesn't exist. The secretary's top analyst is Brandt (Renner), but he is also—wait for it—a spy with a secret.
The Mission: Impossible series has always used a team approach, because, obviously, Ethan Hunt can't be suspended over the secure server room and warn himself that a baddie is entering said secure server room, so the appearance of Renner and Patton does not rock the boat too much. It is true, however, that Paramount was reportedly gun-shy about Cruise carrying the entire weight of the film after the failure of Knight and Day at the box office, and reworked the script to make room for a younger operative. So either the studio was reassured along the way that Cruise could still do the job—which, again, he does really, really well this time around—or director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) did a poor job of showcasing Renner.
At the end of the day, these movies are two-hour international stunt-fests. They're about explosions in exotic locales, and somebody hanging off a mountain or a building a half-mile in the air. And, regrettably, they're still about those stupid masks. Therefore, the formula is pretty simple: If the stunts seem so implausible that we shift in our seats whenever Ethan Hunt starts to lose his grip, then these movies are successful. The more they obscure the weak story, the better; everybody knows how espionage and Russians dovetail.
What wins Ghost Protocol the silver medal of Mission: Impossible movies, a notch or two below the unheralded third installment, is seeing it in IMAX (which you can do locally at the AMC Loews Foothills 15). A lot of live-action films have adopted 3-D, but it's a gimmick that rarely helps. Some scenes in Ghost Protocol were shot with those huge IMAX cameras, designed specifically to come to life on the mammoth screen. And when Tom Cruise climbs up the side of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure in the world, it's nothing short of popcorn-movie magic. Frankly, who cares why he's doing it? (To get into that secure server room!) Not all of the stunt showcases are that exhilarating, and all of them are remarkably preposterous. But that's also part of the fun, both for the audience and—by all appearances—a reinvigorated Tom Cruise.
So don't count your missions before they hatch, Jeremy Renner: It doesn't look like Ethan Hunt will self-destruct in five seconds.