'Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol' (PG-13)

The wait for a great action movie is finally over. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is pure popcorn of the highest, most flavorful order, and it’s good for you, too. Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) is the first director from the Pixar stable to cross over into live-action films, and he has set a high bar for everyone else to follow. Someone should sit Michael Bay down in front of this movie, his eyes forced open Clockwork Orange style, and make him watch it until he learns the lesson: This, sir, is how it’s done.

Unlike the James Bond franchise, where most of the films adopt the same anonymous style, Tom Cruise’s original concept for the Mission: Impossible franchise was to provide a showcase for established directors to exercise their signature imprint. Until now, that had resulted in two strong efforts (from Brian De Palma and J.J. Abrams) and an atrocious one (from John Woo). Ghost Protocol, which was written by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec (former showrunners on Alias) has a cookie-cutter plot about terrorists who steal nuclear missile launch codes to try to launch World War III. But the generic story allows lots of room for Bird to orchestrate one gigantic set piece after another. You may not remember what Ghost Protocol was about 10 minutes after you’ve seen it. But you won’t forget the movie’s astonishing action feats, including Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, with a gigantic sandstorm rolling in on the horizon. Obviously, the actor wasn’t really dangling only by his fingertips 100 stories above the ground. But man does it look that way in the movie!

Almost 30 minutes of Ghost Protocol were shot with 70mm IMAX cameras, and although the giant format isn’t always ideal for action-intensive pictures (ever try watching Transformers in IMAX?), Bird takes every conceivable advantage of the extra clarity and oversized frame, as well as the pumped-up sound, to whip up vertiginous excitement. Simple stunts, such as Cruise leaping onto a moving van, seem more dangerous and painful. Elaborate sequences, such as a long fight inside a multi-level car park, are so exciting that even though you know the good guys are not going to lose, you still start worrying that the good guys are going to lose. The scene recalls a similar moment in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, in which Cruise squared off against Colin Farrell. The highest compliment you can pay Bird is that he does it better.

Cruise is nearing 50, and after the last time he ran around in a crazy shoot-’em-up (the execrable Knight and Day), I was certain he would never be convincing as an action hero again. But the actor is much cannier than he gets credit for, and he tones down his trademark cocky preening in Ghost Protocol, giving his co-stars room to do their thing. Simon Pegg is the movie’s comic relief, never better than when he and Cruise sneak into the Kremlin using the single coolest piece of preposterous gadgetry I’ve ever seen in a movie. Paula Patton brings poise and warmth to the requisite spy-babe role, and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), playing an IMF data analyst with a secret, adds charm and heft to this mindless entertainment. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol does exactly what the title promises, giving the heroes one insurmountable challenge after another, and then constantly making it harder for them to succeed. But the film is also thoughtful enough to throw in not one but two nice surprises in its final five minutes, none of which involve any CGI whatsoever. This is an expertly-crafted piece of pop entertainment. Bring on Mission: Impossible V, please.

Cast: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Michael Nyqvist, Anil Kapoor, Tom Wilkinson.

Director: Brad Bird.

Screenwriters: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec.

Producers: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Tom Cruise.

A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 133 minutes. Vulgar language, violence. Opens Friday Dec. 16 in IMAX theaters only. Opens Wed. Dec. 21 in area theaters.


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