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Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt in “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Ghost Protocol,” from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions. Photo by Industrial Light & Magic

Cruise’s latest mission: Incredible

By now you’ve probably seen footage of Tom Cruise clinging to the world’s tallest building for the fourth installment of the “Mission Impossible” franchise, “Ghost Protocol.”  Believe it or not, the 49 year-old actor was suspended from a helicopter over a thousand feet in the air, so he could pull off the breathtaking stunt work, which includes running down and across the facade of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.  The spectacular sequence is the movie’s centerpiece, something Hitchcock would envy, and just one of the many surprises that makes “Ghost Protocol” so much fun.

Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, a team leader within the Impossible Mission Force, assigned the task of infiltrating the Kremlin to stop a nuclear enthusiast, codenamed “Cobalt” (Michael Nyqvist), from initiating Armageddon with a Russian warhead.  Deep within the Kremlin are files that will reveal Cobalt’s true identity, and it’s up to Hunt and his crew to retrieve the data so they can nab Cobalt before he gains the warhead’s access codes.

Expectedly, plans go awry. The IMF team’s cover is blown, and (without spoiling the plot) the U.S. government must initiate “Ghost Protocol,” a contingency plan to disavow any knowledge of Hunt’s team, and to label them as rogue terrorist agents.  Intercepting Cobalt before he can turn his nuclear ambitions into a reality is the only hope Hunt and company have of restoring their good names.

Tom Cruise, who has become a special effect in his own right, is not the only reason to see this movie; besides his jaw-dropping feats, “Protocol” benefits from the clever plotting of veteran scribes Josh Applebaum and André Nemec, whose work on the TV show “Alias” has taught them a thing or two about crafting effective thrillers.  The duo have worked hard to stay one step ahead of the audience, as Hunt’s best laid plans are foiled by ever-changing circumstance, and replaced by improvisations that are, once again, foiled in the process.  Nothing works like it should, not even the cool gadgets, which still require human operators to perform correctly, and seem to complicate the lives of the IMF agents as much as they promise to simplify them.

The writers are especially adroit at assembling new faces and old faces and answering fundamental questions like “What happened to Ethan’s wife from the last movie?”  Providing much welcomed humor, Simon Pegg returns from the third “Mission” as Benji Dunn, the technical wizard whose dramatic contribution is more substantial than last time.  New faces include William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), the IMF’s secretary Chief Analyst; and Jane Carter (Paula Patton), a tough as nails beauty, who proves IMF women can hold their own.

The movie’s polish and pace are due in large part to animation wunderkind Brad Bird, the Pixar director best known for “The Incredibles” (2004) and “Ratatouille” (2007).  In retrospect, the former looks like Bird’s demo for “Protocol.”  In collaborating, the director has pushed his writing team to think bigger and better; no easy feat when you consider how solid the last three “Missions” are.  Some of the finer set-pieces, like Hunt’s scaling across the Burj Khalifa, and a nifty fight sequence within an automated parking garage, started out as his ideas — not to mention a handful of visual gags (penetrating the Kremlin), that could only come from the imagination of a skillful animator.

If there is one weakness, it lies with the villain.  The last movie spoiled us with a Kirk-and-Khan face-off between Ethan Hunt and Owen Davian, played with Oscar-worthy viciousness by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Here, the rivalry between Hunt and Cobalt is less personal and, consequently, less dramatic.  In the end, “Ghost Protocol” may not be a performance-driven vehicle, but it’s a substantial blockbuster that will have you gripping your seat.

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