It's a risky proposition for any animation director to make the leap over to live action, but for Brad Bird it seemed only natural. The director of the high-flying The Incredibles and energetic Ratatouille seemed to have all the skills of spatial relations, camera movement and action beats that most big-budget directors lack, and when he signed on to direct Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, it was reason enough to look forward to a Tom Cruise action vehicle even years after the actor seemed to have peaked. Lucky for us, Bird has managed to meet all of those expectations and go beyond them; Ghost Protocol is a thrilling and awe-inspiring adventure, as light on its feet as Bird's animated films and easily the best action film of the year.
The Burj Khalifa sequence, in which Tom Cruise scales the tallest building in the world with nothing but high-tech suction gloves, is worth the admission alone, especially when viewed in jaw-dropping IMAX that will goose even the hardiest stomachs. But the film from beginning to end is playful and dynamic, taking our team of rogue spies from Hungarian rooftops to a Russian prison to the Kremlin to Dubai to Mumbai, each location presenting a new tricky action sequence to conquer. Cruise's Ethan Hunt has spent his time since the last movie locked up in that prison, and the film opens with an energetic jailbreak sequence that sets the crackerjack tone for the rest of the film. Ethan, tech guru Benji (Simon Pegg) and fellow spy Jane (Paula Patton) are charged with breaking into the Kremlin to find out the true identity of former Soviet terrorist Cobalt (Mikael Nyqvist), but the plan blows up, literally, when Cobalt and his team set off a bomb at the Russian landmark.
The crew, joined by stuffed shirt analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner) wind up disowned by the IMF, sent on a mission to clear their name with nothing but the handful of gadgets in a tricked-out train car. The details of what happens from there aren't important-- they never have been in the Mission: Impossible films-- but Ghost Protocol does take the interesting step of tying the action into the events of the third film, namely Hunt's relationship with his wife, played by Michelle Monaghan. Most of this comes in the form of a draggy monologue from Jeremy Renner in the middle of the film-- one of the few times the movie ever slows down-- but it carries a nice emotional payoff by the end. Bird and the writers (Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, both first-timers) develop their characters smartly and slowly, so that by the end you're ready for the next adventure not only because of the spectacle, but because these are characters worth following.
That said, wow, what a spectacle. The Burj Khalifa sequence, shot with IMAX cameras and what must have been a fabulous series of camera rigs, is a showstopper on its own, but it's followed up with a chase scene through a Dubai sandstorm that takes the chaotic, shaky-cam aesthetics of modern action and transforms them into something coherent and thrilling. For all the years on him, it's hard to imagine anyone but Cruise pulling off these sequences, and though Renner, Patton and Pegg each get their own heroic moments that bode well for the future, they are smart enough to leave the show to Cruise, and he more than delivers.
The physicality of the Dubai scenes gives way to a third act that's heavy on punching numbers into computers and "uplinking to the mainframe," or whatever, and for a moment it seems Ghost Protocol might have run a little too fast , like Wile E. Coyote running in thin air over the cliff edge before dropping like a stone. But it all ends nicely, with both a dynamite fight scene in a high-tech parking garage and a thoughtful finale that leaves the door open for Ethan Hunt's next adventure. It's hard to believe there's this much life left in Cruise, in spy thrillers, in the old-fashioned movie magic of seeing a human being do something that seems, well, impossible. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol takes every negative expectation from its clunky title, its aging star, its newbie director, and uses it for fuel; it runs faster, goes bigger, and tells stories better than nearly any action film this year-- and makes it all look easy in the process.