Jeremy Renner, top, and Tom Cruise star in "Mission: Impossible --… (David James / Paramount…)
They've done without the number this time, but anyone who cares knows that "Mission Impossible — Ghost Protocol" is really "Mission Impossible 4," the fourth time Tom Cruise's intrepid Ethan Hunt has taken on the evildoers of the world. And the fourth time a different adventurous director has orchestrated the action.
Brian De Palma, John Woo and J.J. Abrams were the choices the first three times around, and the selection here is the most unexpected yet: Brad Bird, making his live-action debut after directing three exceptional animated films: "Ratatouille," "The Incredibles" and "Iron Giant."
Bird has done a stylish and involving job here, turning in an entertaining production that's got considerable visual flair, especially in its action-heavy Imax sections. Many of "Ghost Protocol's" key action sequences were filmed with that 65 mm camera. There are only 27 minutes of Imax footage in the film, but every one of those minutes counts, which is one reason why Paramount chose to open this film in Imax theaters Friday, five days before its general release. For a film with these kinds of visuals, it must have been an easy choice.
Bird also brought a touch of playfulness to the proceedings in moments like a self-destructing phone booth that refuses to self destruct. If "Ghost Protocol" doesn't display as much individualism as Bird's animated features, that likely wasn't in the cards with a tent-pole series like this.
What is in those cards is another unswerving performance by Cruise, whose onscreen commitment to the role is key to making these two-fisted tales — not to mention lines like "nobody leaves this hotel alive" — believable. If Rhino the hamster in the animated "Bolt" ate danger for breakfast, Hunt eats it for lunch and dinner too.
Before the main course, the film opens with an appetizer involving a fellow agent from the Impossible Mission Force organization (Josh Holloway) interacting with a sultry assassin played by France's Lea Seydoux and a mighty important briefcase that everyone wants to get their hands on.
That briefcase turns out to contain Russian nuclear launch codes that are coveted by brilliant madman Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a stone-cold nihilist who believes that the only way to save the world is to destroy it and who will stop at nothing — nothing! — to put his plan into action.
Hendricks, code name Cobalt, is so feared that an IMF team is dispatched to liberate Hunt from a Russian prison where undisclosed actions have landed him. Teammates include the tough-as-nails Jane Carter (Paula Patton, a long way from "Precious") and not-as-funny-as-he-thinks techie Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg).
Once out, Hunt and his gang make their way into the Kremlin to gather vital information only to have things go horribly wrong. The Kremlin explodes in an excellent effects shot, the IMF folks get the blame, and the dread Ghost Protocol is invoked: The United States government disavows the team (talk about ingratitude) and Hunt and company are left to their own resources to save the world.
Those resources still include some nifty gizmos that have the air of James Bond about them. There is a large-scale invisibility shield (which comes in handy in the Kremlin), contact lenses that work like a computer screen, and Gecko Gloves suitable for major climbs.
As written by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, whose credits include the "Alias" TV show, "Mission Impossible" is essentially a series of elaborate action set pieces. There is exposition thrown in here and there, especially after circumstances force policy wonk William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) to join the team, but that is not the heart of the matter.
All that action benefits greatly not only from Cruise's presence but also his willingness and ability to do big chunks of his own stunt work. An action moment in Moscow, which has Hunt escape from a fourth-story ledge via some elaborate maneuvers, was, the press material informs, actually performed by the actor himself. And more is yet to come.
For "Mission's" action ends up taking the team to the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Not just anywhere in Dubai, but the Burj Khalifa, a futuristic glass-walled tower that is currently the tallest building in the world. Naturally, the plot calls for Hunt to climb the outside, and it's really Cruise we see in action in the neighborhood of the 130th floor, about a third of a mile off the ground. This is high anxiety with a vengeance.