Is there a star as determined as Tom Cruise to show how hard he works? Is there one as desperate to show how hard he’s working for us?
We’re now in an age of such control that smoothness and the illusion of ease have taken over the movies. Ryan Gosling’s performance in “Drive’’ encapsulates the vogue for a kind of touchless action-hero and all that he does: the appeal of his grace and clenched jaw, the erasure of sweat and strain. I love Gosling and the less archly styled Jason Statham. But Cruise is laughing at them. Cruise will clench his jaw until his teeth shatter - do you think he cares that he just had his man-braces removed? For a paying audience to watch him save the world, he’d have his entire mouth reconstructed. Silly me. I almost typed “pretend to save the world,’’ but isn’t that the difference between Cruise and everybody else? There’s no “cut’’ for him.
We might have given up on Cruise. The runty cockiness, the intense asexuality, the general relentlessness, the sprinting - lord, the sprinting: so passé. But Cruise hasn’t given up on himself. “Ghost Protocol’’ is the fourth “Mission: Impossible’’ in 15 years, and his decision to keep making these ridiculous movies - this one’s “A Tom Cruise Production’’ - doesn’t feel desperate. It feels like a workout. For him. For us. For whoever on the set was responsible for saying, “Tom, that’s a union job’’ or “Mr. Cruise, we have stuntmen to run along the surface of that skyscraper and fling themselves inside.’’
But Cruise knows we’ve come to see him accomplish the absurd. We’ve come to see him do the mission-impossible. We want to believe that that’s him in that sandstorm chasing down a Russian guy with nuclear-bomb codes. That’s him leaping from the ledge of a building and onto a speeding delivery truck. Who else would it be? Cruise, of course, leaves nothing to chance. The cheap high point of these movies always involves someone’s false face being ripped off only to reveal another face. Conveniently, the machine that molds and paints the masks malfunctions at a crucial point in “Ghost Protocol,’’ meaning Cruise can revel in the glory of seeming to kick and chop his own way through another exercise routine - I mean, “scene.’’
The director is Brad Bird, the Pixar writer and director, making the sort of blatantly box-office-oriented movie that the characters in his more dignified animated hits - “The Incredibles’’ and “Ratatouille’’ - might roll their eyes at. But “Ghost Protocol’’ is far from a disgrace. He handles his first time with flesh and broken bones with confidence and patience. I haven’t seen the script, which is credited to André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum. But it appears that Bird has seen the previous three movies and demanded clarity from Nemec and Appelbaum, who both wrote for the old ABC spy series “Alias.’’ They’ve transferred the absurdity of that show to this movie, in a way that’s heightened and easy to follow.
It’s not logic you want in a movie like this - somebody blows up the Kremlin, somebody’s a “nuclear extremist,’’ somebody hovers above the blade of a giant fan, and it takes nearly two hours for a man to notice that Paula Patton is extremely beautiful. What you want is navigability. You just have to understand why Cruise’s indestructible superagent, Ethan Hunt, and Hunt’s new team - Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Patton - are hopping from Moscow to Dubai to Mumbai (aside from global commercial domination, of course), and we do. Bird’s guidelines for the plot appear to have been: Can the parents who like my other movies stay with this one?
In its way, the movie has old-Hollywood elegance. The scope and sets are vast, tall, and cavernous, but Bird scales down for spatial intimacy. There are speeding sedans and barreling foot chases, but he doesn’t rely on them. (The best passage in the movie features two men leaping the shifting levels of a sleek tower full of parked cars.) Bird seems to prefer the challenge of wringing comic suspense from a couple of actors, some gadgets, and a situation. There’s a lovely, stressfully funny sequence in which Cruise and Pegg nudge a projected scrim down a corridor. There’s also a nifty one that requires Renner, who’s loose, self-mocking, and not going for too much, to do the sort of hovering that Cruise has apparently outsourced to newcomers.
Bird also really punches up the ensemble playing. I imagine one of the upsides of being the director of nonhuman beings is that you’re trained to respond to characters as much as stars. “Ghost Protocol’’ is littered with Pegg’s throwaway lines and facial expressions. Vladimir Mashkov, as a Russian intelligence agent, has a good time failing to catch Hunt. Léa Seydoux is a killer assassin with a great sense of chic. Michael Nyquist goes from his virtuous part as Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’’ to a charismatic Euro-baddie. And, in Mumbai, the Bollywood star Anil Kapoor makes a late bid, as a randy moneybags, to walk off with the film. But who is he kidding? No one steals anything from Tom Cruise.
Cruise’s only true peer is Mel Gibson. But Gibson has always had a kind of terrifying lunacy. Whether he’s playing Hamlet or his “Lethal Weapon’’ psychopath, he’s ready to die in a way that makes some psychological sense. Cruise never seems crazy. There’s nothing psychological about him. He just seems exasperated to discover that people think they can actually beat him. Villainy is an affront both to mankind and his ego.
Over time, all his talent has become secondary to his masochistic vanity. He’s the sort of messiah who’ll nail himself to the cross. It should be pathetic, but, after all these years, I still wear a Cruisifix close to my heart. This is a man who, at this point, could be phoning it in, selling chocolate ice cream on billboards in a Paris metro station. He could be on QVC. He could be in “New Year’s Eve.’’ But watching him appear to risk his life about 25 times (for our salvation!), you’re forced to concede that the entire point of “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol’’ is just how not in “New Year’s Eve’’ Tom Cruise is.Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.