Note:  In the following joint Blu-ray review, both John and Will comment on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
“Ask no questions and believe only what you see.  No, believe half of what you see.”
–Burt Lancaster, “The Crimson Pirate”

Lancaster might well have been talking about 2011’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” one of the best action adventures of the year if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief for most of the picture.

In Hollywood, there is an unfortunate tradition that sequels, continuations, and follow-ups are amost never as good as their progenitors.  Oh, I know we all have our personal exceptions, like maybe “From Russia with Love,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Godfather II,” or “Die Hard 4.”  But mostly sequels and their like have been disappointments.  Not so with the “Mission: Impossible” series.  The first movie I positively hated when I saw it, given that I am an old fan of the television show and despised what first movie did to the characters; it took me years to accept it.  The second “M:I” movie was marginally better, but then, anything would have been better to me than the first.  The third movie I liked quite a lot, and this 2011 installment is the best of the bunch, a humdinger of an action film.  Remarkable:  a series that is getting better as it goes along.

Tom Cruise is back again, of course, because what would these things be without him and his special brand of derring-do?  Only this time, things are more far-out than ever, which is why I recommend suspending your disbelief.  If you thought the stunts were incredible in the previous “M:I” pictures, they’re stretched to the limit here.  Yet I found nothing in the movie I couldn’t go along with; there were no “Oh, that’s just stupid” moments, no matter how far-fetched the action.  That’s the biggest compliment I can give the film.  What’s more, Cruise did his own stunts.  At nearly fifty, the guy remains fit, and it’s a kick to see him dangling off the world’s tallest building (the Burj Kalifa in downtown Dubai), swinging from window to window.  And we can believe he’s really doing it because, well, he’s really doing it.  An accompanying featurette shows him about a thousand feet in the air, suspended with cables, naturally, which the filmmakers later digitally erased.  Still….

You don’t really need to know or even follow the plot of the movie to enjoy it; it’s one of those plots that’s so complicated, so episodic, so convoluted, that to try to follow it just detracts from the film’s atmosphere and adventure.  Let it suffice to know that it’s all about launch codes and satellites and people who want to start World War III, the main characters globe-trotting from Russia to the United Arab Emirates to India in the fashion of all good action movies, the story borrowing scenes from the best of them.  For instance, the film opens with a scene from “The Sting,” followed by ones from “Get Smart,” “The Great Escape,” “The Fugitive,” the “Bourne” adventures, and a penultimate sequence from both “Goldfinger” and “Monsters, Inc.”

The narrative involves Cruise as Ethan Hunt and his IMF team breaking into the Kremlin, the plan going awry, the U.S. government disavowing the whole crew, and Hunt and his team having to find the baddies by themselves to prove their innocence.  Did I say they borrowed from other good thrillers?  How about roughly every Hitchcock film you can think of, starting with “The 39 Steps”?   There’s even a character in “M:I – 4” named “Hanaway,” pretty close to Hitchcock’s “Hannay.”

Brad Bird makes his feature-length live-action debut as director of the movie after success in the animation field with “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille.”  As you might guess, this one most closely resembles “The Incredibles,” the live characters only slightly more realistic (at least in appearance).  Simon Pegg is back as Benji Dunn, the techie expert who heretofore had confined himself to the lab.  Now, he’s passed his field exam so he can go out into the world and perform his technical magic.  Pegg is always a pleasant and amusing addition to any cast.  Also aboard the new IMF team is Jeremy Renner as William Brandt, a National Security analyst who gets sort of sideswiped into the crew.  Renner is no stranger to action movies as he also starred in 2008’s “The Hurt Locker,” played supporting roles in 2010’s “The Town” and 2012’s “The Avengers,” and stars in 2012’s “The Bourne Legacy.”  The fourth member of Hunt’s team is Paula Patton as Jane Carter, a sultry, do-it-all, kick-ass heroine.

I might add that anyone who doesn’t like heights, like me, will find parts of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” nerve-wracking.  In addition, there’s more old-fashioned 007 gadgetry this time around, including a prototype BMW right out of any Bond movie.  And having Renner aboard is like having Bond and Bourne in the same film.  Did I say I liked it?

John’s film rating:  8/10

The Film According to Will:
Tom Cruise is one of the biggest movie stars in the history of cinema. Yet, his reputation and box office clout have been tarnished by his bizarre behavior. The Tom Cruise publicity machine has been working overtime to restore his standing in the eyes of the public. Will a return to the mega-successful “Mission: Impossible” franchise rehabilitate Cruise’s status? In my opinion, the man can jump on all the couches he wants as long as he keeps making films like “Ghost Protocol.”

The fourth “Mission: Impossible” opens with an exciting prison escape as Ethan Hunt (Cruise) breaks out of a Moscow gulag with help from IMF (Impossible Mission Force) agents Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg). During his incarceration, another IMF member (Josh Holloway from “Lost”) has been murdered while attempting to retrieve launch codes for the Russians’ nuclear missiles. As it turns out, the codes have fallen into the hands of sultry French assassin, Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux), who is in the employ of Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a Swedish-born scientist code-named Cobalt. Hendricks genuinely believes all-out nuclear war will benefit mankind in the long run, allowing only the strong to survive.

The IMF team infiltrates the Kremlin in order to retrieve information on Cobalt. Unfortunately, the enemy is several steps ahead as Hendricks alerts the security to IMF’s presence, steals a launch device, blows up the Kremlin, and implicates Hunt’s team as the culprits. Branded as terrorists, the entire IMF department has been disavowed by the U.S. government. On the run from Russian authorities, Ethan and his team must clear their names and prevent a nuclear holocaust. Joining them as their newest member is Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an intelligence analyst whose combat skills belie those of a mere paper pusher.

“Mission: Impossible III” took the franchise down a darker path in line with “Casino Royale” and the Bourne franchise. “Ghost Protocol” gleefully embraces the over-the-top elements of the spy genre. JJ Abrams, who directed the previous installment, has stayed on as producer and brought on board writers Josh Applebaum and André Nemec from his “Alias” days to pen the script. Their screenplay seems to have emerged from the 80’s since it is packed to the gills with Cold War trappings. There are Russian antagonists, shady villains with generic foreign accents, and the looming threat of all-out nuclear war between the superpowers. The gadgets are all here too. The IMF utilizes high-tech gear such as a contact lens that can transmit visual data, a magnetic levitation suit, not to mention iPads and iPhones. The iconic masks are present as well. What would a “Mission: Impossible” movie be without a cool mask reveal? A running gag throughout the film is how the team’s equipment always seems to malfunction at the most inopportune of times. Even the famous self-destructing message (hidden inside a pay phone) needs a good bang to the side to get it started.

Each installment of the “Mission: Impossible” series has had a different director behind the camera employing his own trademark style. For “Ghost Protocol,” Tom Cruise went with an unlikely choice in Brad Bird, whose experience has solely been in animation. Bird has helmed “The Iron Giant,” “Ratatouille,” and “The Incredibles.” His skills have translated to live-action with rousing success. Bird has managed to create an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride in a way that not even action maestro John Woo (who directed “Mission: Impossible II”) could have. “Ghost Protocol” consists of one unique action sequence after another as Bird takes the audience on a globe-trotting adventure from Budapest to Mumbai. You have a foot chase through a blinding sandstorm and a climactic fist fight in the middle of an automated parking garage. Without a doubt, the centerpiece of “Ghost Protocol” is a spectacular set piece involving Tom Cruise precariously scaling the outside of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It’s an amazing stunt that Cruise insisted on doing himself. The sequence was also one of several that were shot in IMAX. “Ghost Protocol” features approximately thirty minutes of footage shot in the larger format and Bird makes the most of every frame, including the ones featuring the beautiful Paula Patton.

Despite being 49, Cruise is as youthful as ever and slips right back into the role of Ethan Hunt with his usual exuberance. But, Cruise is smart enough to know when to step aside and allow his co-stars to share the spotlight. Indeed, “Ghost Protocol” is more about teamwork than its predecessors. Simon Pegg is easily one of the film’s highlights with his trademark brand of comic relief. Jeremy Renner, who might be groomed to take over the franchise, is a welcome addition. While his cast mates play it big, Renner underplays the role of Brandt and gives him a dry sense of humor. Also look for cameos from Tom Wilkinson as the head of IMF and Ving Rhames returning as Luther Stickell.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is the epitome of a well-made, big budget blockbuster. The law of diminishing returns is not in effect here as the fourth picture is far and away the best in the series. “Ghost Protocol” is gorgeously shot and one of the most fun movie experiences of the year.

Will’s film rating:  8/10

The picture quality on this film is about as good as it gets in a live-action feature.  The director shot some thirty minutes of the movie in IMAX (1.44:1), but he chose here to frame the entire film in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, just as he did with the regular 35mm release in non-IMAX theaters, rather than going with a varying aspect ratio such as used in “The Dark Knight.”  Whether you agree with his decision is another matter.  Paramount employ a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC encode to reproduce the film on high-definition Blu-ray.

Definition and detailing are almost perfect, especially in the scenes shot in 65mm IMAX, which are quite breathtaking in their clarity.  In fact, even though the regular footage is excellent, it looks by comparison a tad soft.  Just as important, colors, especially all-important facial tones, are natural and lifelike, with deep, inky black levels.  Film grain is practically nonexistent, but the fine, inherent print grain we do get provides a realistic texture.  The PQ on the Blu-ray disc is actually sharper and clearer than I remember it from a movie theater.

If there are any flaws in the video quality, you have to look really hard for them.  There is the comparative softness I mentioned above, hardly a flaw.  There is a little, very little, nearly undetectable flutter and wavering in a few rows of parallel lines.  And there are faint, narrow strips of vertical fade, perhaps banding, on the outer edges of the sandstorm sequence.  None of it is anything of concern.

Using lossless 7.1 Dolby TrueHD to reproduce the sound, the Paramount audio engineers provide a sonic experience to equal or surpass the picture quality.  Needless to say, with 7.1 channels active, if you have the necessary audio setup, you get noises coming at you from all directions, and everywhere in between.  The highs sound reasonably well extended, the bass sounds taut, and the midrange sounds truthful.  On occasion, the dynamic impact will jolt you from your seat (yes, Virginia, things explode).  More important, the entire sound spectrum appears well balanced, meaning you don’t get music overpowering dialogue or explosions that force you to turn down the volume.

This “Limited Edition” three-disc set contains just about everything you can think of.  Disc one, a Blu-ray, contains the feature film in high definition; twenty scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; English audio descriptions; and English captions for the hearing impaired.  There are no other extras on disc one.

Disc two, also a Blu-ray, contains the bonus materials, mostly in HD.  First up is a series of featurettes called “Mission Accepted,” which includes “Suiting Up in Prague,” “Heating Up in Dubai,” and “Vancouver Fisticuffs.”  They total about forty-eight minutes and give you behind-the-scenes looks at the special effects.  Next is another series of featurettes, this one called “Impossible Missions,” which includes “The Russian Prison,” “Shooting in IMAX,” “Art Department,” “A Roll of Film,” “Life Masks,” “Stepping into the Storm,” “The Sandstorm,” “Dubai Car Crash,” “Lens on the Burj,” “Props,” and “Composer”  These total about fifty-one minutes and give you more behind-the-scenes looks at things.  Then, there are eight deleted scenes totaling about fifteen minutes, with optional director commentary; and two widescreen theatrical trailers.

Disc three contains the feature film on DVD.  Also, the package includes download codes for an UltraViolet and Digital Copy, the codes expiring April 17, 2013.  The three discs come in a solid Blu-ray keep case (none of that Eco stuff), further enclosed in a handsomely embossed light-cardboard slipcover.

Parting Thoughts:
It’s always nice to see things that are getting better with time instead of the other way around.  With “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” you get a first-class, slam-bang action adventure in absolute state-of-the-art picture and sound.  And you don’t have to apologize for enjoying it.  To make matters even more welcome, there is every indication at the end of the movie that the IMF team will be back for more.  Let’s hope they keep up the pattern of making every installment better than the last.

Final note:  For reasons I still cannot fathom, the folks at Paramount are making the Limited Edition three-disc set of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” available only as a Best Buy exclusive.  This may be great for the studio in whatever financial arrangement they’ve made with the store, but it’s unfortunate for the consumer, who has no choice but to buy at a single price from a single vendor.  There’s always the two-disc edition you can get elsewhere, but if it’s the three-disc set you want, you pay through the nose.