“And I’ll catch you”

I remember so much talk about whether or not Tom Cruise was being forced out of the Mission: Impossible series and how Jeremy Renner was cast to either replace him or be ushered in as the new team leader in subsequent films. Well, after watching Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and seeing ‘A Tom Cruise Production’ in big, bold white letters, I’m thinking it’s a pretty safe bet to say the franchise is still his to do what he may. Kudos to him if true, I’m actually pulling for there to be a fifth entry sooner rather than later.

A wall-to-wall action flick that never lets off on the throttle, Brad Bird‘s live-action directorial debut doesn’t disappoint on the promise The Incredibles made as far as choreographing a fight scene’s frame goes. Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec‘s script allows for this because of the film’s subtitle—Ghost Protocol isn’t merely some catch phrase alluding to hidden agents off the radar or a way to add unnecessary flourishes like a smoky dissipation of the words in the opening credits. No, the term describes an initiative on behalf of the American government to disavow every single member of the IMF due to a terrorist explosion causing irrevocable damage to the Kremlin. With newly freed from Serbian jail Ethan Hunt (Cruise) framed as suspect number one, his team must go dark and enter Dubai without official orders in hopes they can stave off an impending nuclear war.

It’s a rogue Russian genius named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) who has gone insane and decided the exchange of warheads was the only way to bring world peace. A menacing force fearless in his quest to buy stolen launch codes and spark World War III, he battles hard with brains and brawn to surprise us by fighting his own scuffles when most villainous masterminds would send their dogs to do the dirty work. Things get personal and the action in the trenches appears to have more meaning than previous installments, but perhaps my inability to let my guard down was because a new high production sequence was waiting around every corner. Whether covertly breaking into high security buildings with more far-fetched gadgets than ever before, driving at high speeds through a desert sandstorm and zero visibility, or jumping flights at a time inside a modern Mumbai parking garage, get used to taking big gulps of breath because you won’t realize you’ve been holding it.

There’s little time wasted on setting up different operations or explaining exposition—although it’s all still included in the package. We learn things fast and as briefly as possible so as to never muck up why audiences love to see popcorn fare such as this. Intelligent in its twists and turns by even allowing contrived connections between agents appear natural and authentic, Ghost Protocol becomes more than your standard blockbuster raking in the dough with little to no substance. It isn’t even all about the effects since the use of those impossibly realistic MI masks becomes thwarted despite an elaborate process creating them. But that’s why the film is so much fun: its unpredictability in the small things lets the predictability of the rest seem less important. We enjoy Benji’s (Simon Pegg) humor, forgive Jane’s (Paula Patton) scowl for revenge, and appreciate Hunt’s calm cool because none of the characters give us any reason to do differently.

Exotic locales like Russia, Dubai, and Mumbai showcase stunning work with a death-defying climb of the Burj Khalifa or the climactic man-to-man quarrel fought with broken legs and arms. There really isn’t anything better than watching two men limp and grimace through their war instead of giving pretty boys a close up and letting the bad guys fall with a swift kick to the head. Every tussle here has consequences; every block, punch, kick, or shot is a painfully felt blow that may prove failure to the infallible team we assume will hurdle all obstacles thrown their way. So how cool is it when an easy mission with an awesomely inventive hallway-sized computer screen creating a perfect representation of what’s behind it by changing perspective with the moving eyes of its victim fails miserably? Or a twenty-minute car chase through dust culminating in spectacular crashes of metal and glass that ends with the bad guy getting away? Why can’t all actioners possess real struggle?

And don’t forget the newcomer’s role. Whether being groomed to takeover or not, Renner’s Brandt proves to be an intriguing character worth the mystery shrouding his character. A top IMF analyst caught up in the espionage and danger when his boss is murdered and his only chance for survival is helping Hunt finish the mission, his secrets provide for interesting revelations both in his field abilities and connection to the events at hand. Possessed of the same hardened skills Cruise has shown throughout the series, he is a worthy predecessor if the time comes as well as an impressive warrior to fit a deceivingly effective team. You may wish for the old days of Ving Rhames, but the dude’s retired. Let him have his green pastures, but don’t simply write him off like these films have no underlying structure. Good job to Appelbaum and Nemec for retaining a thread with Mission: Impossible III and thank you surprise cameos for allowing it to happen.

A ton of fun-filled set pieces surprisingly not falling prey to implausibility, Ghost Protocolseriously couldn’t be better. A welcome return throwing us into the action straight away with a stirring prison riot, Cruise shows pitch-perfect comedic timing and physical prowess opposite muscle-clad men and armed guards in very enclosed places. Chock full of close calls and injected with tough fights befitting of the work these characters do, there aren’t many part fours deserving to be called refreshing. But that is exactly what this film is, a unique vision on a tired formula allowing the audience more room for questioning whether our heroes will save day in the end than most studios probably want to give. There’s no better way to invest in a movie, though, and I can say this has everything I needed to grab hold and grip tight. Funny, brutal, and compelling enough to forgive its clichés, the summer action flick of the year arrived in December and it’s hopefully a sign of more smart popcorn flicks to come.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol 7/10