Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Joe Lederer/Paramount Pictures

Tom Cruise goes rogue to clear his organization's name in Brad Bird's first live-action film.

It may not be The Incredibles, but there is some fairly incredible stuff to be found in Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, animation ace Brad Bird's first live-action film and a good continuation of the 16-year-old series. The impact of spectacular action on striking international locales is moderated somewhat by the repetitive nature of the challenges faced by this rebooted team of American agents, which is trying to thwart a villain who believes that a nuclear winter would be in the natural order of things. With Tom Cruise in top form here, and Imax presentation enhancing some of the key sequences, this Paramount release should add substantially to the grand total of a franchise that has hauled in $1.4 billion to date.

At least two constituencies will be curious about this fourth installment of a series that -- if not taken to heart by the masses on the level of Bond, Harry Potter or even Indiana Jones -- has reliably supplied enough lavish, high-voltage excitement to keep international audiences coming back. First will be the mainstream action fans and Cruise fans, who will get their money's worth from the eye-popping set pieces staged in Moscow, Dubai (with the star dangling from and traversing the world's tallest building) and Mumbai, for starters.

Then there are those who will be curious about how Bird, the force behind three superb, unusually smart animated features -- The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille -- fares behind the camera of a big live-action feature. Given the demands of working within a strict and narrowly defined format that encourages imagination but allows for little deviation, he's done a fine job, perhaps nowhere better than in the first protracted set piece. Accomplished with very little dialogue and a nice dose of unexpected humor considering the circumstances, it's an escape from a Russian prison by Cruise's Ethan Hunt (first seen throwing a ball against a wall, in likely homage to Steve McQueen in The Great Escape) orchestrated electronically from the outside by the one other holdover from the last film's team, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg). Conceived entirely visually, the sequence boasts perfect timing, framing and movement, with some brutal action offset by the inspired musical overlay of Dean Martin singing "Ain't That a Kick in the Head."

Next, Ethan and Benji must do no less than penetrate the innermost sanctum of the Kremlin to retrieve the file on Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), who they know is getting very close to being able to trigger a nuclear holocaust. The moment they get out, a huge explosion blows up an entire corner of the edifice. Ethan's boss (an unbilled Tom Wilkinson) shortly informs him that, as the incident will eventually be blamed on the United States, the president has declared "ghost protocol." That means the IMF team, which also includes tough babe Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and will soon add agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), is being disowned and hung out to dry.

And that is exactly where Ethan finds himself at his next stop, clinging with suction gloves to the windows 123 floors up on the Burj Khalifa. This is the spot where the team hopes to nail Hendricks and, in the bargain, a crafty and sexy assassin (Lea Seydoux), whom Jane gets to fight hand-to-hand.

Ethan spends quite a bit of time making like Spider-Man on the side of the building, and much has been made of how Cruise insisted upon doing this himself. It's riveting, with some shots shortening the breath and likely to induce vertigo in the susceptible. But a question arises: Since CGI has become so convincing that it's often impossible to know if what's onscreen is real or artificial, how necessary was it for Cruise to actually get outside more than a thousand feet up? Are there, in fact, some computer-generated images mixed into this fine, thoroughly concocted sequence?

By this time, and as the action moves along to India, the patterns in the script by veteran Alias writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec become all too familiar. At a lavish Mumbai bash, Jane does get to go glam in order to distract a local gazillionaire (Anil Kapoor, from Slumdog Millionaire), but the main action here is Ethan battling Hendricks for a crucial metal briefcase in a high-rise car park.

Mild encroaching signs of physical maturity are becoming to Cruise, who will turn 50 in July. He is obviously in great shape but doesn't strut and preen at all in this film. He's quite appealing, in fact, and might be on the verge of entering a new phase of his career.

As for Renner, his potential for danger, intensity and violence that was so evident in The Hurt Locker and The Town goes largely untapped, which is a shame in that there are momentary hints that he and Cruise could have cooked with some material tailored to their strengths.

Unquestionably, the film moves like crazy but could have used some variations of rhythm and some different moves in the second half. Technically, Ghost Protocol is immaculate, with incredible photographic clarity, at least as presented in Imax. Michael Giacchino's active, imaginative, nearly ever-present score nicely incorporates Lalo Schifrin's original TV theme, as the previous films did.

Release date Dec. 16 (Imax) and Dec. 21 (wide) (Paramount)
Cast Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner
Director Brad Bird
Rated PG-13, 133 minutes