The Action Movie As Must-Have New Gadget 

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Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Directed by Brad Bird

Like an aging bodybuilder who tries stemming the atrophy of muscle into flab, the Mission: Impossible franchise has gamely handed each movie to a different Hollywood auteur, originally to stabilize a tone for future sequels but perhaps, by now, to deliberately cultivate a status of perennial self-reinvention. The producers have kept and discarded what they like from prior installments, the budget is markedly bigger than that of most 4ths, and the style runs to Cold War retro. It's not surprising that the director is Brad Bird, the infallible Simpsons producer who became the only outsider embraced by Pixar's inner creative sanctum.

The globe needs saving from a rogue lunatic with the Russian nuclear launch codes, and The Team has been disavowed by the President after a Kremlin bombing has framed IMF (Impossible Mission Force) operative Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise.) As both Hunt and executive producer, Cruise's hunches are never wrong, and he always stays precisely one half-wrinkle shy of inhuman. With three sidekicks (Jeremy Renner as the new guy, Simon Pegg as the put-upon nerd, Paula Patton as the weaponized hottie) he zigzags worldwide, unlocking an entire Russian prison, outjogging a sandstorm in Dubai, and sipping cocktails at a bajillionaire's palace in India. These set pieces sport the happiest palettes of any Mission: Impossible movie to date, and give real imperative to see it: the final one-on-one takes place in a neon blue car factory, an old Hitchcock fantasy which Cruise also half-exorcised in Minority Report.

Bird's gee-whiz Technicolor sensibility is the series's new twist; fights and explosions are edited with a gentlemanly, bloodless restraint, closer to the old TV show. It all goes down pretty doggone smooth, but the classiness the filmmakers seem to think is stamped on every frame can get wearisome. The script is hellbent on industrial-sized quotas of quips and convoluted emotional arcs, as though these characters-and not their stunts-were selling the tickets. Patton comes off the worst, her jaw dropping at the plot's every turn, maybe literally dumbstruck that she's in a Mission: Impossible. She baldly exposes the cold, dot-connecting logic necessitated by this kind of screenplay, which Bird and his writers try denying (ala Casino Royale) instead of embracing (ala Fast Five).

The thankless spy who jumpstarts it all looks exactly like a Renner-Cruise hybrid, which is perhaps Paramount's way of insisting, for the first of many times, that you are in fact dangling off the bleeding edge of modern entertainment. Ghost Protocol's opening credits feature a bizarre montage of key shots and cuts from upcoming action scenes, organized one sequence at a time, not unlike a DVD menu or a promo reel at a fan convention. And in a moonlit bonding moment, Cruise dispenses brand new mission-loaded iPhones to his comrades—maybe because that's the one gadget that hasn't broken down and/or endangered millions of lives yet.

Opens December 21

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