If Tom Cruise's tenure as a Big Movie Star is ending, he's not going out without a fight.
"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" isn't just a rip-roaring yarn worth seeing in all its IMAX glory. It's the most eye-popping installment in a franchise overseen by some of the biggest directors in Hollywood.
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Each "Mission" recruits a new director - should they choose to accept the assignment - to interpret the modern spy film as they see fit. This time, Pixar veteran Brad Bird ("The Incredibles") got the nod. Seems he's just as comfortable directing human beings as he is orchestrating ones and zeroes on a keyboard.
Yes, the "Protocol" story is sketchy, and you won't be quoting any of dialogue as you file patiently out of your seats. But when an action caper delivers this much excitement, demanding more almost seems churlish.
Cruise's Ethan Hunt opens the film trapped in a Russian prison, but one masterfully executed escape sequence later he's back on the spy beat. His new team - Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg - end up getting blamed for a Kremlin bombing which disgraces their team's good name. So Hunt and co. must go undercover - or Ghost Protocol, to be precise - to find a Russian in possession of nuclear launch codes.
Bird is only one movie into his live-action film career and he could already teach a seminar on action movies. His ability to instigate thrills, which he proved via the superhero antics in "The Incredibles," doesn't require shaky cams or other gimmicks.
You don't have to shake a camera if you know how to use it.
Even jaded action freaks will clench their armrests as Hunt dangles from a skyscraper, his only tools a pair of "Spider-Man"-style gloves that just may be defective. Had "Ghost Protocol" only served up that exhilarating sequence audience could settle back in their chairs knowing they got their money's worth.
Moments later, Hunt is at it again, chasing a baddie through a Dubai sand storm, and you'll wish you could grab your own pair of goggles so you won't miss a beat.
Bird deposits us directly into the action, whether it's a worm's eye view of Hunt racing away from the storm to Hunt's team trying to save their embattled leader from plummeting to his doom.
The off-screen Cruise can be a tad ... intense. Whether he's jumping on couches or smiling just a bit too wide, he gives off a slightly creepy vibe. But those same attributes lend Hunt a near-supernatural ability to save the day. Cruise may be in his late 40s, but he's as fit as any 20-something punk. He's also gunning for that perky "Twilight" kid actor's turf. It seems Hunt can't keep his shirt on for very long.
Co-star Patton and Pegg make a fine support team, with her stunning looks and his knack with a punch line giving texture where the screen is often as smooth as a baby's rump. Renner holds his own as an agent with a murky past, but the talented actor isn't challenged nearly enough.
"Ghost Protocol" finds excuses to touch down in Russia, Dubai and India, just the sort of exotic locales the spy genre demands. The "Mission" is more Bond-like than "Casino Royale" or "Quantum of Solace," brimming with gadgets that make the Sharper Edge catalog look like a stone tablet from "The Flintstones."
The ending more than hints at future "Missions," and if they can recruit Bird or an equally talented peer then why on Earth not?