Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol begins with the destruction of the Kremlin. But there really is no better cinematic encapsulation of the post-Cold War era than a scene that comes towards the end of the movie, when a middle-aged Russian and a middle-aged American batter each other with increasing slowness around a hypermodern Indian parking garage. We still have a lot of money. We still have a lot of very dangerous toys. In this semi-unipolar world, the U.S. may be number one for the moment, but that doesn’t mean we’re the future. It’s a pattern that persists throughout the movie: the details of plot and the means by which it’s resolved may be utterly ludicrous, but they’re rooted in itchy geopolitical truths.
Even for someone who believes firmly in interrogating the trivial, the actual details of the plot by a nuclear megalomaniac to bring about world peace through the shock of a nuclear attack are rather silly (for one thing, he doesn’t think blowing up much of the Kremlin might do it?). But there’s enough enjoyment to be gained from just going with it that it’s worth not bogging yourself down in the details. And it gets a larger point correct: in a post-Cold War, the risk may not be that superpowers will go to war on their own, but that non-state actors can cause a great deal of trouble by aggravating them. The more villains we get like Kurt Hendricks, the freelance scientist and nuclear terrorist in this movie, or Le Chiffre, the terrorist financier in Casino Royale, the closer our movies will be to understanding the new world order. It’s not a matter of who’s got the launch codes now: it’s who can goad that person into making poor use of them.
In that vein, I thought the movie was wise to pull in industry actors as well as state ones. Anil Kapoor’s Indian media mogul is on screen for all too little time — some day his mugging may be irritating, but we have not yet reached that moment. But as access to media, to energy, to food, to water, to resources of all kinds become more critical, and given the ongoing role of markets in guaranteeing or undermining the stability of regimes, economic actors should be the supervillains of today and tomorrow. The Bond movies, until Casino Royale, tended to go rather over the top, focusing on bushy eyebrows and arcane plots rather than the actual drama of business, but there’s a lot of room to do better.
And while we’re focusing on the individual, is there a more appealing action star than Simon Pegg working right now? That might seem an odd question to ask about an actor whose resume includes playing a hideously obnoxious journalist and a star turn in a movie called Run, Fatboy, Run, and who often appears in action movies as a geek pressganged into a situation above his pay grade. But he’s a marvelous audience surrogate, alive to the true wonder of any situation. As Scotty in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, he declared of the Enterprise, “I like this ship! You know, it’s exciting!” By the end of Hot Fuzz, he’s got sunglasses, Point Break moves, and has finally nailed the bad jokes his office specializes in. And in Mission Impossible 4, he carries forth one of the franchise’s most noble traditions, asking at one point in the leadup to an action setpiece in a Dubai hotel, “Are you sure I shouldn’t wear a mask? Because I’m not exactly Omar Sharif. I’ll play it French.” It’s all well and good for Tom Cruise to slug it out to the point of insensibility with the Russians, but gosh, someone ought to enjoy these international jaunts, sharp suits, and snazzy toys.
And it’s nice that Jeremy Renner shares some of that self-aware humor without winking too broadly at the audience. “Next time,” he grumbles after a hairy jaunt into a satellite room, “I get to seduce the rich guy.” A new world needs new spies, willing to do new things.