Cruise Control: The Loopy Terror Of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

Tom Cruise is not like us. This was always pretty evident, but as recently detailed in this great Amy Nicholson L.A. Weekly story, it became inescapable fact around 2005, when he jumped on Oprah Winfrey's couch. That story is full of convincing evidence that the whole couch episode didn't happen the way you remember it, but the fact remains: As soon as the technology was in place for a video to go viral, a video of Tom Cruise being weird went viral. His movies still rack up Scrooge McDuck money banks' worth of cash, especially abroad. But his career has been hurt a bit, and it's been hurt because we've been forced to acknowledge that his laser-focused scary-grin persona can be pretty goddamn off-putting in situations where he's expected to act like a normal human being.

That queasiness can come through in his movies, too. In 2012's godawful Rock of Ages, where we're supposed to buy Cruise as a down-on-his-luck rock star, his alien intensity is such that he seems just about ready to bite poor Paul Giamatti's face off every time they're in a scene together. When he attempts to simultaneously sing a Def Leppard monster jam and ooze sensuality, the results are not fucking pretty. But that's why 2011's Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol stands as the best, and maybe the best possible, post-meltdown Cruise movie (and, probably, why it's his highest-grossing movie ever). The fourth entry in his Mission: Impossible franchise does not require Cruise to be remotely human. It does, however, require him to do some weird shit.

Here's something that boggles my mind: Dubai's Burj Khalifa is, at nearly 3,000 feet, the tallest building ever built in human history, and Tom Cruise climbed that motherfucker. He really did that shit. The Burj Khalifa looks like a goddam metal splinter sticking up out of the desert ground, except that this splinter is a half-mile tall, and one of the world's biggest movie stars hung off its sheer glass face, connected by a few thin wires. Those wires were digitally erased, so we see Cruise hanging on by one malfunctioning Spider-Man glove, and we know he's probably not in actual mortal danger. But director Brad Bird does excellent work in letting us know we're not looking at a green screen, in letting us see real terror briefly flitting across Cruise's cold, dead eyes.

The first time I saw that Burj Khalifa scene, I was slightly high and staring at a massive IMAX screen, and I thought I was going to die. Watching it a couple of years later on my computer screen, my stomach still dropped at a couple of key moments. I can't watch a goddam minute-long YouTube making-of featurette of that whole thing without inwardly flinching. Maybe you can, but maybe you can't, either:

Here's the thing about that Burj Khalifa setpiece: It's not even the climax of the movie. Really, it's not even important to the movie, at least not plot-wise. Cruise's Ethan Hunt and his fellow on-the-run IMF agents are trying to fake a deal for some Russian nuclear codes, so they need a guy in the Burj Khalifa control room to slow down some elevators. That's it. That's the whole excuse for this heart-wrecking scene. It's played for laughs as much as for anything else. But that's really the whole point of the movie: a series of expertly constructed mega-budget action scenes, threaded together by a goony balloon-letters plot, its pretty actors never given much to do beyond quipping at each other when they're not leaping off buildings. It's an absurdly slick live-action cartoon, so it makes perfect sense that the director is Brad Bird, who did The Incredibles and who'd never before done a live-action film. The characters don't need to seem like humans. They just need to fly through the air real good and wear silly disguises.

As someone who loves action movies, these big, middlebrow blockbuster spectacles don't generally move me. What I tend to like is impact. In a movie like Ong-Bak or The Raid, the fists land with visceral thwacks, and deep within your gut, you feel ghost versions of those punches. You don't get that in a CGI'ed-to-death Transformers movie or whatever. But Ghost Protocol has that sense of impact. It has the beautiful on-location helicopter shots and the intricately constructed heist scenes and the general weightless antics that we expect from movies so vast and expensive. (The entire budget of Ong-Bak would pay for maybe a minute of what we see onscreen in Ghost Protocol.) Even in the final fistfight, where Cruise squares off against the guy from the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies, there's a sense that some of those punches might be landing, that some of that blood might be real. Ghost Protocol is an expertly made piece of slick entertainment, but within its soul, it wants to elicit that same involuntary goddamn response as, say, Hard-Boiled or Out For Justice. We need more big movies like that, and if it takes an alien movie star to make them, bring on the aliens.

Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.

Previous installments: Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master