If The Incredibles -- for my money, still the best superhero movie ever made -- somehow failed to convince you that Brad Bird is one of the great action directors of our time, check out Bird's live-action debut, Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol.
It's a rousing gasp machine that gives the flagging franchise the kick in the pants it sorely needed, and it marks the most impressive segue from cartoons to features since Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.
One of the film's first on-screen credits proclaims that we're watching A TOM CRUISE PRODUCTION, but Cruise himself seems hip to the fact that audiences these days prefer him (a) in small doses and (b) not trying so damn hard to charm us all the time.
Subsequently, Ghost Protocol (written by Alias vets Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec) not only gives us a brooding Agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise), now estranged from his wife under mysterious circumstances, but also honors the original Mission: Impossible by letting Hunt's teammates share in the heavy lifting.
We meet Jane (Paula Patton) in Moscow, where she and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, whose IMF technician character from M:I III has been promoted to field agent) are springing Ethan from prison -- he's been there for an unspecified period of time after murdering six Croatian agents. Jane and Benji are still reeling from the death of Hanaway (Josh Holloway), their comrade who was shot by a slinky assassin in the process of intercepting some Russian missile launch codes.
Those codes are headed to Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist, who played the journalist in the original Swedish Millennium Trilogy movies), an unhinged diplomat who thinks a little nuclear war is just the thing to send mankind toward the next step in its evolution.
Complicating matters is the fact that Hendricks has caused a major international incident -- let's just say he blows up the wrong building -- and made it look it Hunt and his team were responsible. Disavowed by the government, the three of them, along with IMF desk jockey Brandt (Jeremy Renner), must go on a globetrotting mission to save the world.
Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol isn't the kind of movie that's going to inspire a lot of arguments about plot or character, obviously, but it delivers the jolts and the thrills non-stop. It's become something of a given in this series that we're going to see Cruise hanging off some dizzily high structure with one hand -- this time it's Dubai's Khalifa Tower, the tallest building in the world -- but Bird gets to put his own spin on things as well.
The director's background in animation matches the material perfectly, from a high-tech hallway cloaking device that calls to mind Bugs Bunny painting a fake train tunnel on a wall to the tangibility of the computer-generated effects here. The CG fakery of movies like Hugo and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows lacks a certain gravity, but when a car plummets to earth two feet behind Ethan, I jumped back in my seat.
It's Bird's skill that makes the difference between perceiving an effect as a real object versus attempting to fake out the audience with what comes off as a mass of ones and zeroes.
Perhaps the film's greatest accomplishment is making audiences care about the Mission: Impossible franchise again. Between the Bourne movies and the Fast and the Furious saga, not many moviegoers spent the last five years longing for the return of Hunt and the IMF team; with Bird at the helm, however, this series rockets back into relevance.
Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol features, at most, two or three laggy bits during its running time (along with far too many brought to you by BMW product placement moments) but it feels like nit-picking even to mention them.
Blurb-hungry pundits will unpack their usual adjectives (It's a pulse-pounding thrill ride that will blow you through the back of the theater until your spine shatters into the popcorn machine with sheer exhilaration!), but for once, the hyperbole is earned. Brad Bird could teach Michael Bay and his acolytes a thing or two about telling a narratively and visually cohesive story without sacrificing any excitement.