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Is there anything Brad Bird can’t do?

He was a director on “The Simpsons” during its heyday, and if his career had stopped after “Krusty Gets Busted” or “Moaning Lisa,” he still would have earned my respect.

He then entered feature film animation and, as 2D was taking its last gasps in light of the oncoming digital revolution, delivered one of the best (and, tragically, most ignored) films of that kind with The Iron Giant. Proving that he wasn’t going to be just a pencil-and-ink man, he raised the bar at Pixar — and delivered the best superhero film of the past 20 years — with The Incredibles,  a funny, exciting and surprisingly nuanced tale of family dynamics and global peril. With Ratatouille  he took a cute premise and turned it into a sumptuous feast of a movie and an ode to art, excellence and collaboration.

Now, with Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, he wants to roll up his sleeves and tell live action filmmakers, “this is how you do an action movie.”

It would be hubristic if Bird wasn’t so darned brilliant.

It’s not unheard of for action franchises to gain steam in their fourth go-around; heck, the Fast and the Furious series didn’t even get good until this year’s fifth film. But still, it’s rare for a long-in-the-tooth saga to have the same energy and drive that it had nearly two decades earlier (I’m looking at you, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard.) 

And it wasn’t like the Mission: Impossible films were iconic action movies. Brian DePalma’s 1995 entry was slick and nicely photographed, but tangled up in a convoluted plot that even the film’s producers couldn’t explain with a straight face. John Woo’s sequel was a strange beast, with a turgid first hour in which nothing of consequence happened and a loud, senseless second half that became a self-parody of Woo’s formerly illustrious career. JJ Abrams’ entry in the saga a few years back was a clever, fun take on the series that felt more like the TV series it was based on: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was finally given a team to work with, and the film kept its tongue firmly in cheek, smiling at the ridiculousness of it all.

Ghost Protocol plays, in many ways, as a sequel to the third film. The same team–particularly Simon Pegg’s nerdy, brilliant Benji–is back, and the film has a sense of humor and fun that was missing in the first two entries. Indeed, the film even plays off the events of the third film, making constant references to Ethan’s love interest from that film.

The film opens with Benji and new recruit Jane (Paula Patton) springing Ethan out of a Russian prison, where he has been for reasons that will be explained later. The sequence is a perfectly timed bit of chaos that builds to a full-scale prison riot set to “Ain’t That a Kick In the Head,” playing with a deft mix of suspense and fun; the timing and tone Bird brought to Mr. Incredible’s raid on the enemy fortress is in full effect here.

Because the rule of the IMF is that captured or killed agents are disavowed, Ethan figures “if they wanted me out of there, things must be pretty bad out here.” And it is, as the IMF Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) explains: a Russian terrorist (Michael Nyqvist, of the Swedish Dragon Tattoo films) is looking for codes to start a worldwide nuclear war, under the idea that worldwide destruction will force mankind to evolve and improve. Hunt and his team find themselves working alone after the terrorist pins an attack on them, and must track down the codes, which involves a series of double-crosses, backroom deals and raids on various hotels, fortresses and strongholds.

But let’s be honest, the entire plot is simply an excuse for Ethan and his team to be caught in outrageous situations, hanging from absurd heights and escaping by the skin of their teeth. The plot is coherent and as strong as it needs to be, and thankfully the script tosses out subplots about moles and double agents that have been done to death in this series. Brad keeps it streamlined and keeps it moving; the story makes sense and has some weight, but we’re well aware that it only exists to propel us from one nail-biting action sequence to another.

I mentioned the prison riot that kicks things off, but there’s also a mission that sends Ethan and Benji into the Kremlin, where they use a projection screen that, of course, backfires wonderfully. Bird has a wonderful sense of building his set pieces so they work as mini-movies in their own right, and each action scene is bigger, crazier and more fun that the preceding one.

The film’s highlight involves Ethan hanging outside the Burj Dubai tower by only a pair of electronic gloves (the gadgets in this film make just enough sense to be plausible while still being incredibly crazy). Cruise really did his own stunts in this sequence, and it’s a testimony to why practical stunts work so much better than CGI stand-ins. Particularly in IMAX, the sequence achieves a kind of vertigo, and I’ll admit to holding my breath and gasping a few times during the scene, even though I knew Cruise was perfectly safe in real life.

Bird’s a master at this kind of stuff, and his secret is that he keeps it old-fashioned. He’s not a fan of shaky cams or quick edits; he holds a shot long enough for us to get a sense of geography and scope. He lets us feel the reality of the sequence and then cuts it wonderfully, holding shots long enough to keep us in suspense and then peppering the scene with comic relief to defuse some of the tension. The tower sequence may  be the film’s highlight–and the best action sequence of the year–but every action beat here is wonderfully timed and delivered, particularly a chase through a sandstorm that starts on foot and escalates to become a thrilling car chase through zero visibility.

Cruise is in pure movie star mode here, and I like the sense of humor he’s given to Hunt this time around. He’s looser and less self serious than he’s been in previous films, and I think Cruise is actually having a lot of fun with this character — there’s a great bit involving an IMF message that doesn’t self destruct as it should, and Cruise plays it with a wonderful sense of humor. I don’t think Ethan Hunt’s a particularly deep or engaging character– even James Bond has more depth– but Cruise is nothing if not a charismatic star, and he’s the center of gravity around which this whole crazy affair revolves.

I love that producer JJ Abrams has focused the last two films in the series on the IMF’s team aspects, and he gives Ethan a great team to play with here. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Pegg’s role had increased here, and the actor provides wonderful comic relief. Paula Patton takes a role that, in a lesser film, would have been a one-dimensional love interest, and turns Jane, instead, into a bit of a badass, out to seek justice on the people who killed her lover (Josh Holloway); there’s a great scene where she kicks off her shoes before heading after an assailant, and the look in her eyes tells us just how much her adversary is going to regret tangling with her. Jeremy Renner is strong as an IMF analyst who ends up a part of the team, and while he may seem a bit marginalized, I was simply glad to find that his character didn’t end up being who I thought he was going to when he was introduced and, instead, had a more compelling backstory.

But I simply can’t say enough about Bird. Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol may not have the dramatic heft or resonance of the director’s animated efforts, but it’s one of the most well-tuned and crowd pleasing action movies I’ve seen in awhile. Bird keeps the story from becoming bogged down, but he doesn’t sacrifice plot or coherence. He knows just when to toss in a joke without making the film too silly, but he never lets it take itself too seriously. The action sequences are amazing fun and even though the movie clocks in at well over the two hour mark, it never drags. It’s easily the best film in the franchise, and I can’t wait to see what the director does when he’s allowed to have some fun with an orginal idea.

I doubt Ethan Hunt will ever be a name on par with James Bond or Jason Bourne. His adventures, after all, seem to be more memorable than he is. But if Ghost Protocol is an indication of how the series is going to evolve, I’m willing to accept any missions that may come my way.

Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol is out in IMAX now and opens next week in regular release–I highly recommend IMAX, which is more successful at immersing viewers than 3D ever has been.

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