Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol 

Cruise control - MI-4 had just enough personality to uphold its eye-popping action and dizzying stunts

Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol

 

B+

Pure popcorn movie-making, and all the better on 70mm IMAX, MI-4 may be the best entertainment dollar of the series, filled with slick invention, eye-popping action, dizzying stunts, and just enough personality to rise above its shrewdly calculated rollercoaster thrills.

Tom Cruise attracted the talented director Brad Bird (Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) to helm his first live-action movie, and the results are pretty spectacular. A master of cinematic geography, Bird composes action scenes that are kinetic, easy to follow and, most importantly, exciting. I wouldn't say Ghost Protocol makes the most of Bird's skills as a dramatic storyteller, but as a talent in service of entertainment above all else, he rises to the occasion.

Last time we saw Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in 2006's MI-3, he was happily married to Michelle Monaghan. Things have obviously taken a turn for the worse since then. The Impossible Missions Force (IMF) sent to bust Hunt out of a Russian prison end up framed for bombing the Kremlin. Disavowed by the U.S. Government, they're forced to chase down the villain behind their woes, scientist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), who dreams of creating world peace through nuclear Armageddon (no one said the guy was sane). Teamed with tech nerd Benji (Simon Pegg), grieving agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and haunted analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Hunt must thwart Hendricks and clear the IMF's name.

The globe-trotting narrative is about as thick-headedly generic as it gets, but as a vintage-era James Bond plot reimagined for an ensemble of modern heroes (rather than a single super agent), Ghost Protocol brilliantly sets up a series of action sequences that consistently raise the stakes. Whether it's a frantically claustrophobic prison break or an insanely concocted brawl in a mechanized parking garage, Bird directs his action sequences with testosterone-fueled aplomb. His years in animation have served him well, inspiring him to stage cartoonishly impossible-to-believe stunts that push the envelope of what live-action can deliver. From Ghost Protocol's opening frame, as an agent blasts bad guys while free-falling from a rooftop, Bird sets a style, clarity and pace that outclass anything Michael Bay has ever done. His action centerpiece is Cruise's gut-churning climb up the side of Dubai's tallest building in the world, taking full advantage of the IMAX format. Trust me, it's worth the extra ticket price.

Though Cruise, even at 49, is effortlessly physical in such films, he seems more relaxed than usual, easily connecting with his supporting cast. This is instrumental, because unlike the previous Mission Impossible movies, which focused on Hunt as a superstar agent, Ghost Protocol is fueled by its team interactions, making it a truer heir to the original TV series. Even when its heroes are in different places accomplishing different tasks, Bird perfectly times his edits and crosscuts to create a rhythm of collaboration.

On the other hand, unlike Bird's dramatically layered animation work, MI-4's characters and storyline lack substance, subtext or heart. While the cast is more than a quartet of empty action props — each is given a personal motivation — only Renner registers as a real human being. Worse, the villain and his associates lack even an inkling of personality, coming across as bland outlines in service of an already undernourished plot.

None of that will make a lick of difference at the box office. With an arsenal of dazzling set pieces, some cleverly comic asides, and an epically scaled sense of adventure Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol is 133 minutes of balls-to-the-wall entertainment.

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