There’s always been a degree of cheek to the Mission: Impossible film series, which for 15 years has offered a knowing, but generally exciting, take on a 1960s TV series that pitted mask-happy, gadget-wielding spies against megalomaniacal madmen. In both the film and TV versions, any resemblance to actual espionage was purely coincidental. Though J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III introduced some emotional stakes, the M:I movies have mostly served as a testing ground for how well a director could craft an exciting action sequence around Tom Cruise. Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, the series’ fourth film, charges director Brad Bird with the task, betting that the animator behind The Incredibles and Ratatouille would have similar luck with flesh and blood in his live-action debut. The bet pays off. And then some.
The film opens with Cruise behind bars, briefly. After a prison break that reunites him with Simon Pegg (who joined the series with Mission: Impossible III) and new teammate Paula Patton, the team heads to Moscow to… well, it gets a bit convoluted there. Suffice it to say that eventually, a dreadful plan involving nuclear-missile launch codes comes to light, and only Cruise and his team, which later expands to include a welcome Jeremy Renner, stand in the way of Armageddon.
As usual for the series, there’s little weight here. Has any franchise had a hero harder to care about, or less-defined, than Cruise’s Ethan Hunt? The character begins and ends with the star’s charisma. Thankfully, that remains considerable, and Cruise’s co-stars offer able support, from Patton’s steely turn as a woman driven by revenge to Pegg’s well-timed comic relief. But Bird’s direction—the work of someone with something to prove and the skills to prove it—puts the film over. From a prison break (timed to Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That A Kick In The Head”) to a finale that orchestrates many moving parts at once, Bird brings a scary amount of assurance to Ghost Protocol. His action scenes are clean, coherent, thrilling, and visceral, never more than in a mid-film sequence in Dubai that piles setpiece atop setpiece as the action moves in, around, up, and down the Burj Khalifa skyscraper—the tallest building in the world. As Cruise clings to the side of the building using malfunctioning equipment, and a sandstorm looms in the distance, the question shifts from whether Bird can direct an action film to whether there’s anyone out there who can top him. (Note: About 30 minutes of Ghost Protocol was filmed in IMAX, and seeing it in that format is worth the extra effort and money.)