March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Tom Cruise hits a new high in the fourth — and best — 'Mission: Impossible' adventure

Apparently, nobody ever considered offering Tom Cruise the role of James Bond, which is why the star launched the “Mission: Impossible” line. Based on a TV show that was more memorable for its urgent theme song and its tagline (“This message will self-destruct in five seconds”) than its content, the “Mission” movies have always seemed like afterthoughts in Cruise’s career: They are what he makes when he needs a sure-fire international success to reinforce his box office bankability — or when he wants to collect a major-league check for playing with cutting-edge gadgets, driving dreamy cars and strolling through exotic locales.
That’s precisely what he does in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” the fourth and probably best installment in the 15-year-old series. Ever-cool and always up for a physical challenge, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt (of the Impossible Mission Force, naturally) maneuvers his way from a Russian prison to Dubai, Mumbai and Seattle while trying to prevent a terrorist known as Cobalt from detonating nuclear weapons on U.S. soil. Assisting Hunt is a dutiful pair of fellow agents, Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), as well as Will Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst who has more skills than he originally admits to. Hunt needs all the help he can get since the government has invoked “ghost protocol,” disavowing any knowledge of the IMF after a calamity at the Kremlin that has provoked worldwide outrage.
“Ghost” is directed by Brad Bird, who is making his first stab at overseeing a live-action film after a glorious career at Pixar (“Ratatouille,” “The Incredibles”). Bird does an admirable job of coordinating and choreographing the film’s many set-pieces, many of which involve vehicles tumbling through the air or buildings being blown to smithereens. Those who choose to see the movie in IMAX (and it’s worth the extra money) get an even richer experience, since roughly one-fifth of “Ghost” was shot in the full IMAX format, which means a gigantic, crystal-clear image, as well as an astonishing sound mix. When bombs explode, you’ll feel it in your bones, and when Hunt is forced to pursue a bad guy through a raging sandstorm, you’ll swear you can feel the grittiness on your skin.
The visual splendor is almost too much in one of the film’s tensest sequences, involving Hunt’s spider-like, vertigo-inducing journey across the exterior of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building; if you have a fear of heights, this scene will not be your idea of a good time. Brandt’s daring trip — in an anti-gravity suit — through an enormous, overheating computer is another outstanding episode.
Impressive as these moments are, it’s the spirited chemistry between Renner, Patton, Pegg and Cruise that gives the movie its zip. Pegg is delightfully funny, Patton radiates a fierce intelligence and the sometimes prickly partnership between Cruise and Renner is compelling.
As far as the gadgetry goes, the most intriguing of the bunch is a high-tech mobile projection screen that allows Hunt and Dunn to slip around the halls of the Kremlin unnoticed (at least until it malfunctions). Unlike the first two “Mission” films, “Ghost” has a refreshing — and much-needed — sense of humor and a playful tone.