Courtesy photoThrills and chills: Tom Cruise's amazing stunt work is one of the best things about the fourth “Mission: Impossible” movie

Brad Bird, Tom Cruise rock fourth 'Mission: Impossible'

If anyone doubted that Pixar’s Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”) could bring his storytelling gifts to a live-action battleship the size of “Mission: Impossible,” rest assured. Following in the formidable footsteps of Brian De Palma, John Woo and J.J. Abrams, Bird has added a potent entry to a series that has suffered nary a misstep to date.

Revisionists have made a sport of dismissing past “Mission” sequels, just as surely as Tom Cruise’s star power has been questioned in recent years by the tabloids.

Whether “Ghost Protocol” silences those naysayers remains to be seen, but if the movie is to be judged on merit alone, it’s a winner.

The franchise has long relied on a simple, sturdy formula, and Bird knows not to mess with it, though certain tweaks are apparent.

Gone, for the most part, are the prosthetic masks Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team have favored when infiltrating the underworld. Yet this latest adventure is hardly wanting for Q-worthy toys.

In another departure, “Protocol” surrounds Cruise’s all-purpose Superman with a new cast of comrades, including Jeremy Renner as a reluctant field agent and Paula Patton as the team’s resident seductress. Simon Pegg, playing a computer nerd eager to be freed from his desk job, is the only supporting player from “Mission: Impossible III” to log serious screen time.

If Renner represents the future of the franchise, as has been rumored, he is content to lurk in Cruise’s shadow here.

With Hunt’s Impossible Missions Force disbanded following a disastrous visit to the Kremlin, it’s up to the agency’s top dog to save the day, without any sanctioned support from his government handlers. New sidekick Renner, still traumatized from an op gone wrong, isn’t yet ready to lead.

That leaves the ageless Cruise to do most of the heavy lifting, as he should. Pitted against a generic madman bent on jumpstarting World War III (Michael Nyqvist, of the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), our couch-jumping hero, with the Atlas-like biceps and glacier-melting grin, would seem to hold an insurmountable edge.

Bird doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, and in providing the requisite thrills and visually striking set pieces, he is successful time and again.

Whether dangling Cruise from the world’s tallest tower – the Burj Khalifa in Dubai – or sending him on an epic car chase through a sandstorm, the two-time Oscar winner finds ways to make his first real-life cartoon as dazzling as his Pixar hits.

MOVIE REVIEW

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol ★★★½

Starring Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Michael Nyqvist
Written by Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec
Directed by Brad Bird
Rated PG-13
Running time 2 hours 13 minutes

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