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'Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol': action-packed and almost impossibly good

Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt for a fourth time in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.
Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt for a fourth time in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.

The wait for a good action movie is finally over. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol is pure popcorn of the highest, most flavorful order.

Brad Bird (The Incred ibles, 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, in which most of the films adopt the same, anonymous style, Tom Cruise's original concept for the Mission: Impossible movies was to turn it into a showcase for established directors, an opportunity for each filmmaker to leave a signature imprint. Until now, that had resulted in two strong efforts (from Brian De Palma in the 1996 original and J.J. Abrams in 2006's part III) and an atrocious one (from John Woo in 2000's part II). Ghost Protocol, written by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec (former show runners 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 is a fine framework for Bird to orchestrate one gigantic set piece after another.

You might 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 Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, with a gigantic sandstorm rolling in on the horizon. Obviously, the actor wasn't really dangling by his fingertips 100 stories above the ground. But man, does it look that way.

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, Bird takes every conceivable advantage of the extra clarity and oversize frame, and of the pumped-up sound, to whip up vertiginous excitement. (Lexington doesn't have any IMAX cinemas where you can see the action in all its glory.)

Simple stunts, such as Cruise leaping onto a moving van, seem more dangerous and painful. Elaborate sequences, such as a long fight inside a multilevel car park, are so exciting that even though you know the good guys are not going to lose, you start worrying that they will. (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 is thoughtful enough to throw in not one but two nice surprises in its final five minutes, none of which involve any computer-generated imagery. This is an expertly crafted piece of pop entertainment. Bring on Mission: Impossible V, please.

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