It's easy enough to think of the "Mission: Impossible" franchise as a vanity series for its star, Tom Cruise, who plays superspy Ethan Hunt. But "Ghost Protocol," the fourth entry in the series is better understood as a coming out party for its director, Brad Bird, who firmly establishes himself as one of Hollywood's foremost action craftsmen.
Mr. Bird isn't exactly an unknown: He's won Oscars and accolades for his animated work — first with "The Iron Giant," and later with his two Pixar films, "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille." Those pictures established Mr. Bird's reputation as a clever storyteller with a big heart who managed to skirt the edges of sentimentality without diving in.
But what few noticed was Mr. Bird's penchant for orchestrating outstanding chase scenes — many of which were daunting in complexity and scope, but all of which were perfectly easy to follow. Mr. Bird was an auteur of on-screen velocity: Whether he was following rats through the streets of Paris or staging secret-island battles between costumed heroes and villains, Mr. Bird displayed a distinct and unusual flair for capturing the motion of characters and objects through space in clear and engaging detail.
So it is with "Ghost Protocol," the fourth installment in the "Mission: Impossible" series, which casts Mr. Bird as less of a storyteller and more of a chase-scene choreographer. The plot, which involves a mad nuclear game theorist and stolen Russian nuclear codes, is merely a convenient framework designed to showcase a series of dazzling action sequences: This time around, the franchise tasks Hunt with climbing the tallest building in the world in Dubai, infiltrating the Kremlin, and breaking out of a prison in Budapest, among other things. Mr. Bird handles each sequence with wit and visual eloquence, aware that comic relief is not supposed to distract from the action, but add to the tension.
That's right: tension. Few present-day action blockbusters bother with the stuff at all, favoring the dumb wallop of destructive spectacle over the cinch of nerves and suspense. But Mr. Bird makes every scene wire-taut, methodically ratcheting up the pressure before letting everything go awry.
It helps, of course, that Mr. Bird has an unusually large canvas on which to paint. The rage in blockbusters over the last few years has been 3-D, but "Ghost Protocol" skips the goofy glasses in favor of the extra-large format afforded by IMAX technology (the same used by director Christopher Nolan in several sequences in "The Dark Knight"). It's bigger. It's louder. It's better — the truly awesome theatrical revolution that 3-D was supposed to herald.
The actors, for the most part, are merely pawns in Mr. Bird's games, but they're still fun to watch, especially Jeremy Renner as the spy analyst Brandt, and Simon Pegg as Benji, Hunt's goofy gadget-wizard.
And how does Mr. Cruise fare? Rather well, actually. His willowy man-mane flows impressively, and his eerily robotic movie-star charisma — it often seems like programming as much as personality — is dialed to the max. With his squinty eyes and impossibly chiseled cheek bones, he still doesn't seem quite human. But perhaps that's fitting, given Mr. Bird's history directing animated creations.
No matter what, Mr. Cruise deserves credit for handing over control of his show to someone as genuinely talented as Mr. Bird. Turns out the best way to run a vanity project is to find someone who really does know how to make you look good.
TITLE: "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol."
CREDITS: Directed by Brad Bird, screenplay by Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec
RATING: PG-13 for endless action
RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS