Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol

For a director to make the switch from animation to live-action is no small task, but nobody should be too surprised that Brad Bird’s first flesh-and-blood effort has the best action sequences, hands down, of any movie this year. Have you seen “The Iron Giant,” “Ratatouille,” and “The Incredibles”? Those films, with their smooth, masterful action scenes, might as well have been storyboards for “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.”

In fact, animation might be the best training of all for this kind of movie. A cartoon has to be meticulously planned and carefully laid out, especially when it comes to busy scenes with a lot of characters and movement. You can’t just slap it together. Many live-action directors cheat by using choppy editing to cover their mistakes or create artificial excitement, but someone who has overseen cartoons will have the patience and discipline to do it right. Or at least that’s my theory at the moment. We’ll see what happens when Bird’s Pixar cohort Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”) makes the same leap with “John Carter” next year.

At any rate, “Ghost Protocol” may lack an interesting villain, but it has just about everything else you could possibly want in a high-tech spy caper. It begins with IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) getting busted out of a Russian prison, moves quickly to a mission to prevent nuclear launch codes from falling into the hands of a madman, and after that barely pauses to catch its breath before people are dangling from skyscrapers and leaping out of trains. Yet instead of feeling chaotic and exhausting, as movies that seem to feature nonstop action often do, this one is breezy and invigorating, the action fluid and logical. Not to pick on the “Transformers” movies, but the incoherent action in them is a big part of why they’re terrible. Brad Bird lays everything out perfectly, ably assisted by editor Paul Hirsch and cinematographer Robert Elswit, who won Oscars for their respective work on “The Empire Strikes Back” and “There Will Be Blood.”

Ethan’s partners this time are Benji (Simon Pegg), his old I.T. buddy who has graduated to field agent, and Jane (Paula Patton), whom Ethan has not worked with before. Jane is a skilled agent but is currently hot under the collar because of what happened in a botched mission involving fellow agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway) and devious French assassin Sabine Moreau (Lea Seydoux). The fourth member of their team — and this chapter is all about the importance of teamwork — is Brandt (Jeremy Renner), a pencil-pushing assistant to the IMF Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) who’s dragged into the middle of the action.

The screenplay, by “Alias” writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, is marked by dialogue that’s more efficient than memorable — functional, rather than clever — and a story that’s twisty enough to be “Mission: Impossible” without being impossible to follow. The stakes are clearly delineated, and we know what the objectives are. None of it is remarkable, though it’s always nice to see the old classics played with enthusiasm and skill. (And I do wish the bad guy had more to him than this one does.) The real meat is in the execution of the stunts, and the way they’re seamlessly integrated with the scenes in between. Bird doesn’t do anything just because it looks cool. He does things that make sense within the story, and that look cool.

Everyone’s going to be talking about the sequence set at the world’s tallest building in Dubai. And with good reason: it’s one of the most breathtakingly suspenseful and shrewdly crafted segments I’ve ever seen. You don’t even need to be told that it was actually shot there, and that Cruise did most of his own stunts; you can tell by looking. More importantly, the sequence works not because it’s BIG and HUGE — it’s not like they blow up the building, or outrun a tidal wave, or knock a bridge over — but because it operates on simple principles and slows down enough to let us see, and thus care about, what’s going on.

That’s the movie in a nutshell: thrilling, charismatic, fun, and not too ludicrous. If Brad Bird chooses to accept the mission of making more live-action films as vigorously entertaining as this one, I’ll never disavow him.

B+ (2 hrs., 13 min.; PG-13, moderate action violence, a little mild profanity.)