In M:I–Ghost Protocol, there’s always another domino falling

We are celebrating the Christmas in July that is the release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout all week long! Click on the image for all of the entries:

From the moment I saw it, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol became my favorite entry in the coolest action franchise known to humankind. I have since been made to reassess, having revisited Rogue Nation and finding it to be of equal quality, and I’m sure that once Fallout explodes my eyes, I will have to reassess yet again, but for the purposes of this piece, Ghost Protocol, the first entry which has to contend with figuring out the proper way to punctuate a title which already has a colon in it, is the Mission: Impossible movie that I revere most. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the most prominent lies in the direction. Brad Bird’s Rube Goldbergian style of assembling a narrative suits the Impossible Mission Force in a way that no other director in the series has matched, at least until McQuarrie’s entry made an attempt to extrapolate the formula entirely. But I’ll leave that piece for Garrett to write. I’m here to sing the praises of Brad Bird, and sing I will.

So what do we know about the Impossible Mission Force? Well the main thing is their M.O. Namely, that if it absolutely cannot be done, they are the people who will do it. If the mission is impossible, they’ll formulate a plan to get it done. And if the plan fails or comes up against extenuating circumstances (which it always does), they’ll slap the side of the metaphorical television until the picture comes back. Ethan Hunt is taking that briefcase, no matter what  or who stands in his way. IMF agents think outside of the box, answer to just about nobody, and are equipped with such cleverly designed gadgetry that they already have an edge over any other group who may be given the same mission. Basically, when anybody in their right mind would say “fuck it, this mission is impossible,” the IMF says, “does anyone have any rope, sticky tack, and an old boot? I’m working on something…”

Where Brad Bird matches the material (another piece could be written about the stellar script by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec) is in structure both on a larger scale and within each individual scene. He has designed the narrative as a series of exponentially compounding ticking clocks. The way I envision the plot mechanics are in the form of a domino formation for which the first domino has already been tipped. As each subsequent domino falls into the next, the builder must race to set up more and more pieces to outrun the collapsing structure. The Mission: Impossible films usually have heist film elements, and its heist movies that typically use this format. The main difference being that a pure heist movie doesn’t tip the initial piece until the actual heist portion of the film begins (usually leading to an ultimate reveal that we were looking at a different set of dominoes the entire time). Heist movies benefit from being an unreliable narrator by function. Ghost Protocol never lies to the audience so much as it constantly reminds us that “they’ll think of something.” Here, the film’s pacing rests in the IMF’s ability to continuously divert the destruction on their tail, or, at the very least, take a detour from it and purchase a little more time until a better plan can be forged. This subversion of the heist format keeps things tense without making them frustrating or predictable, a trick that I believe came from Bird’s career directing animation, a medium that, given it’s unlimited nature, needs someone who can maximize excitement without giving way to calamity. 

The set up for Ghost Protocol is as complicated as any of the IMF’s previous outings -well, except for Mission: Impossible II, which was just a lower end run-and-gun John Woo movie in a rubber mask – and it’s defined entirely by the team’s ability to improvise. It begins when Sawyer from LOST is killed while trying to protect nuclear launch codes. These codes are stolen from him by his assassin, Moreau, who plans to deliver the codes to Cobalt, a mysterious entity with ties to the Kremlin. Hunt and his fellow IMFers are tasked with breaking into the Kremlin (impossible), and stealing as much intelligence as is available on Cobalt (impossible), and then getting out undetected (impossible). Should be easy enough, right? WRONG! Because Cobalt has foreseen this breach and used it as an opportunity to not just blow up the Kremlin, but frame the IMF for doing so.

Let’s talk about the direction of this first act setpiece. There are two layers to the plan. Hunt and Benji must pose as high-ranking Russian officials, and then tech their way past a series of inner security measures (impossible), while Carter works from the outside to cover their tracks and plan for extraction (impossible). When the explosion occurs, this tips the first domino on both the larger and smaller scale. In the scene, the entire team must place the prime directive on the back burner so they can escape the explosion AND Kremlin security. Things just got urgent in an immediate sense, as being arrested by the Russian military is not something anyone wants, as well as in a larger sense since now the launch codes are that much closer to somebody who plans to misuse them. The dominoes are falling fast.

In an uncharacteristic turn of events, Hunt demands that the mission be aborted. This is the only time, if memory serves, that Hunt was on board for such a thing (his refusal to abort is exactly what set the original film’s plot in motion). No matter, the dominoes are falling and it’s going to take some luck and some elbow grease to outrun them. After a short period of incarceration, Hunt finds himself in close quarters with an IMF leader who enacts the titular Ghost Protocol. Hunt’s new mission is to find a way to prevent the transfer of these codes, without any sort of support from his superiors. The options are limited: succeed, or be branded the most treasonous war criminal in history. And with that, we find that the dominoes are falling at an even greater speed. 

In a wonderful sequence which introduces us to Agent Brandt (whose tendency toward logic is comically antithetical to Hunt’s method of controlled chaos), we see more of Bird’s thematically adjacent structure at work. Hunt and Brandt are trapped in a sinking car with very limited oxygen, and the first domino is tipped. They must escape the wreckage while goons fire machine guns into the water to keep our heroes trapped (another tipped domino). Hunt improvises by affixing a flare to a floating corpse and guiding it away from the car as a way of drawing the attention of the shooters away from he and Brandt. This gives them a few extra dominoes to play with while they swim to safety. 

Phew. End scene. BUT THE LARGER DOMINOES ARE STILL FALLING!

So the team must head to Dubai, where they plan to intercept the launch codes at the moment of transfer. This excites Benji, who desperately wants to wear a nifty rubber mask, and will be given a chance to do so if the plan goes smoothly, which we all now by now, is not the case. At the outset of this second act, there are more than enough dominoes to complete the formation. Hack into the elevator system of the tallest building in the world, trick two parties into thinking they’ve met, and then get out clean. But wait! We can’t hack into the system from the outside (domino tipped), and the mask making machine is busted (another domino that we didn’t even know about has been tipped!). Ok, so to hack into the system, they need to break into the server room a few floors up… from the outside of the building (domino number three). Ok, new plan. Hunt will use specialized gloves to climb up to the server room, bring the info back and set the original plan in motion, with the alteration that without masks, they must hope that their marks have never actually met before.

But then one of the gloves breaks. And there’s not enough rope to get Hunt back down to safety. And the meeting is about to happen within minutes.  There simply aren’t enough dominoes to outrun the action.

But that’s why these men and women are the best in the biz. No glove? Use friction to climb! Not enough rope? Some inertia should do the trick! Except they don’t. Hunt falls, Brandt grabs him. Brandt falls, Carter grabs him. And wouldn’t you know it? We’ve found some dominoes. Everyone is pulled back inside to safety, and we get to breathe a sigh of relief. But not for long. The clock is still ticking. The plot dominoes continue fall! 

The structure of the information swap sequence is masterful. Bird is tasked with telling the same, if opposite stories in two adjacent settings, with a third setting being the connective tissue between the two. You see, it’s imperative that the IMF intercept the launch codes from Moreau, but also convince the recipient of the codes, Hendricks, of their veracity. At the same time, they must receive payment in the form of diamonds (I love a villain who is mad for diamonds), and seamlessly transfer them to Moreau in the other room. In order to do this, they must actually give Moreau real diamonds, and Hendricks real codes, albeit in a controlled manner. 

LOL at the concept of “control.” 

Bird connects the settings by layering the dialogue at the points where it would be identical. This doesn’t just make for better scene economy (why watch the same thing twice?), but it highlights the urgency of the task at hand. The dominoes are falling, and at any moment the rate at which they fall could be accelerated by tech issues, miscommunications, or one of their marks catching on to the ruse… which is exactly what happens. Luckily for the IMF, when their back is against the wall, they all know how to throw down and fight, and fight they do. Their skills should make for a few more dominoes to be placed between them and failure… until two more are tipped. That’s right, Carter has a personal vendetta against one of the parties and Brandt feels guilt over insufficiently protecting Hunt’s wife of a previous mission – a fact which, at this point, we understand him to be completely in the dark about.

But hey, sometimes our improvisations make for our best plans, and the window which was removed for Hunt to climb outside the building is placed perfectly to allow for Moreau to be thrown right through. Good. Nobody drunk on the allure of diamonds should be permitted to live long. But this distraction allows for Hendricks to escape with the codes. So the dominoes continue to fall. Did I mention that Hunt has to outrun a sandstorm? Well, Hunt has to outrun a sandstorm. 

This pattern repeats itself a final time during our third act. I should note that this third act should be impossible (ha!) given that the movie has already given us its money shot, action wise, but Bird understands that it’s not the scope of the action which counts – it’s the structure (a lesson which McQuarrie took to heart by opening the next film with the biggest action set-piece imaginable, and still maintaining tension for the subsequent two hours). 

The dominoes are falling at a rapid pace as it becomes clear that we are moments away from an independent nuclear launch. Hendricks, now revealed to be Cobalt, is going to repurpose a telecommunications satellite to transmit the codes. So the plan is to have Carter seduce the man behind the satellite for a kill code while Hunt chases Hendricks to obtain his launch device, and Benji and Brandt work to get the system they plan to use for interception back online. This involves a magnet suit, a remote controlled land drone, and of course, a ticking clock. But if the preceding two acts have shown us anything, it’s that the crazier the plan, the more likely it is to succeed. 

Yet, almost immediately, the plan falls apart. The nuclear missile has been launched, and really, everyone should just go home. The larger domino arrangement has fallen over entirely. The mission is a failure. The smaller domino arrangement – Hunt chasing Hendricks through an automated car park, while Brandt zips his way through the innerworkings of a giant computer -are still active, but have been rendered entirely pointless by the missile launch.

No matter. Hunt declares that maybe something can still be done. Maybe they can find a way to deactivate the missile? Note, there is no confirmation that this is even a possibility, but the IMF just has to try. It’s what they do. 

Bird hits knocks a structural home run  here. One narrative track runs through Brandt’s dfficuties as he tries to escape a literal explosion. Another follows Hunt as he chases Hendricks through an amorphous environment (a mechanical, ergonomic car park) just to get his hands on the macguffin briefcase. A third follows a nuclear missile as it hurtles toward San Francisco. So many films, especially those derivative of heist cinema, struggle to balance the timing of multiple ticking clock (or falling domino) scenarios, and usually have to fudge the passage of time in order to maintain tension (Argo and Independence Day, I’m looking at you), but Bird’s structure holds true for the entirety of the third act. Even though we’ve watched the entire domino formation fall, both Bird and the IMF work double time to see if they can make sense out of the pieces. Bird toys with us by tipping new dominoes willy nilly as the missile makes its approach. Be it the briefcase being kicked from surface to surface or Brandt not having enough momentum to escape a fiery death, there’s a push-pull of pacing that never lets up. Every time we think that the mission will be accomplished, and we will be permitted to clean up our totes and go home, another previously unforeseen domino tips. When Hunt finally gets his hands on the kill switch he even yells “mission accomplished!” as he smashes his fist into the button. 

It doesn’t work, there missile stays on course and those of us in the crowd are robbed of what should have been a humorous exhale in exchange for more masterfully woven tension. 

But then all the disparate pieces come together, the signal is reestablished, and it becomes clear that the IMF’s faith in each other is all that they need to complete even the most impossible missions (!!!!!!!!). The missile is deactivated, everyone lives, the IMF is cleared of wrongdoing, and we in the audience release our tension and look down to see one last domino standing, no longer in any threat of being tipped.

It’s a breathless experience, resultant of a million different filmmaking factors, but one need only look at Bird’s filmography to see that it’s his eye for structure – for layering mutually urgent action pieces atop equally urgent thematic – that makes a potentially convoluted tale so exciting, accessible, and fun. When you hire a director who cut his chops in animation, you tap into an imagination that isn’t limited by the physical restraints of a tangible existence. Until Ghost Protocol, the capabilities of narrative structure at Bird’s disposal were limitless -if it could be drawn, it could made into reality. With live-action filmmaking, one must always consider what’s physically possible, even when you have Tom “I can do literally anything short of a convincing sex scene” Cruise in your toolbox.

What I’m saying is, much like the IMF, Brad Bird was given an impossible task, and through sheer imagination, and a willingness to treat nothing as beyond the realm of possibility, he accomplished his mission. 

Note: Bring back Paula Patton. 

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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