Why It's Okay That Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol Has a Weak Villain - VRGyani News and Media

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Saturday, September 4, 2021

Why It's Okay That Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol Has a Weak Villain

It’s not exactly news that Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol features one of the weakest villains in the blockbuster spy series. Ask any GP-hater why they’re down on the Brad Bird-helmed fourth installment, and 99 times out of 100 they point to Michael Nyqvist’s Hendricks, a Russian nuclear strategist who is going to start World War III unless Ethan Hunt and his Impossible Mission Force team can stop him. It’s not an unsound take, as Hendricks is indeed a bit of a bust as a foil for the IMF. His motivations are ill-defined, and the movie falters a bit at the end when it tries to convince its audience that Nyqvist, who looks like a middle school vice principal who keeps getting passed up for the top job, could hold his own against Tom Cruise in a fight.

So, okay, fine … Hendricks is kind of a shitty villain. But what I’m here to tell you is that, in the case of Ghost Protocol (which will turn 10 years old in a few months), it doesn’t matter in the least. Sure, in some other action movies and franchises, it might matter. Would Die Hard work as well without Alan Rickman’s cool and calculating Hans Gruber? Of course not. Would The Dark Knight continue to hold such a big place in the pop-culture consciousness without Heath Ledger’s daringly unhinged Joker? Don’t be silly. There are many, many examples of a well-rounded and charismatic villain helping an action movie hit that next level.

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But there’s more than one way to make an action movie, and Ghost Protocol, in particular, seems like a film that has set entirely different goals for itself. It’s practically a “process movie” in that it’s the process of defeating the villain that’s the point, not the villain himself or whatever evil scheme he’s up to. The various heist missions that Ethan and his team undertake throughout the movie feature some of the cleverest and most inventive spywork of the entire series, and the biggest joy this series has to offer -- other than maybe seeing Cruise survive stunts that probably should have killed him -- is seeing how the IMF uses its brains to overcome whatever obstacle is in their way. And that obstacle can be something as mundane as some nameless guards protecting a locked room.

Ghost Protocol has three all-time classic Mission: Impossible sequences. The first comes near the beginning of the film, when Agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and company help spring Hunt from a Russian prison. What should have been a walk in the park ends up being a thrilling escape when Hunt decides to go back for a Russian cellmate he doesn’t want to leave behind. The second is the Kremlin break-in -- a tense, funny, and nearly silent sequence where Ethan and Benji navigate down a guarded hallway by using a giant VFX screen that hides them in plain sight. And the third is, of course, the Burj Khalifa switcheroo, where Hunt’s team attempts to fool two sets of bad guys across two different hotel rooms while he dangles off the side of the world’s tallest building so they don’t get caught doing it. Of the three, only the third one features the villain in any significant capacity (and even then he’s in disguise and kind of a non-presence), but that doesn’t make any of them less captivating.

There’s almost no disputing that Ghost Protocol revived Mission: Impossible as a franchise and allowed it to grow into the action behemoth it is today. Many will say it’s because of the Burj Khalifa stunt, which started the trend of Cruise risking life and limb in incredibly showy ways. (One film later he’s dangling on the side of an airplane during liftoff. Two films later he’s HALO jumping over Paris.) But I’d argue that just as important was Ghost Protocol’s willingness to give Ethan a capable and interesting team that feels on equal footing to Hunt himself. Let’s not forget that J.J. AbramsMission: Impossible III did indeed have a great villain at its center -- Philip Seymour Hoffman’s scenery-chewing arms dealer -- and yet that movie feels slighter than Ghost Protocol because it’s still a little too centered around Tom Cruise, Solo Action Hero.

In addition to promoting Benji to a full-time team member, Ghost Protocol introduces Paula Patton as Agent Jane Carter and Jeremy Renner as analyst William Brandt. All three get moments to shine during the big team sequences and little story arcs of their own. (Benji learns what it takes to succeed in the field. Carter re-finds her footing after losing an agent she was in love with. Brandt comes to grips with an earlier on-the-job failure.) Watching the foursome attempt to stay on mission while everything seems to be crumbling around them is so much fun that I don’t know why anyone would want to sacrifice one moment spent with them to beef up Nyqvist’s role. Oh, and let’s not be blaming Nyqvist here either (and not just because he died in 2017). The first John Wick proved he can be an amusing and compelling villain. He’d have been up to the task if Ghost Protocol decided to spend a little more time crafting a more complex character for him to play.

That’s not to say there aren’t legit criticisms that can be slung Ghost Protocol’s way. In a series that’s never been known for tight plotting, Bird’s installment may be the one with the most gaping plot holes. (I still can’t figure out why the team kept up the “two hotel room” ruse once they decided to give Hendricks the real launch codes.) Ghost Protocol was largely written on the fly, with future M:I ringleader Christopher McQuarrie and Lost veteran Damon Lindelof hastily rewriting scenes during production, and, if you turn your brain on at any point during the movie, it really shows.

But if inconsistent plotting isn’t enough to kill the movie (and it’s not), then there’s no way a sub-standard villain is going to bring it down. McQuarrie was able to strengthen Mission: Impossible’s bad-guy game when he introduced Solomon Lane, Sean Harris’s sniveling rogue agent, into the fold for the next two installments. But Lane wasn’t the reason Rogue Nation and Fallout were so well-received. They were successful because they built upon the framework laid down in Ghost Protocol -- put together an interesting and dynamic IMF team, send them on a series of increasingly elaborate missions, and maybe have Tom Cruise try to kill himself once or twice in the process. The villain is really completely beside the point.

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