"This is really happening, isn't it?" demure analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner) asks no-worse-for-wear Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) the moment the implausible task at hand comes into truest focus. Yes, it's really happening, son — a fourth Mission: Impossible, this one unfurling on impossibly huge IMAX screens. Director Brad Bird's first non-animated feature is a vehicle for Cruise, whose career's been in the quiet car, to pull leading-man rank, as well as an opportunity to shock a heartbeat back into a franchise sullied by 2000's awful sequel and 2006's passable followup.
Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), whose vivacious eye for action has not been applied to flesh and blood until now, proves three times over that he can flex outside a purely CGI arena in this back-to-basics adventurer, which hews to the workhorse spirit of the TV series and the fast-paced, classic-Cruise original. Impossible Mission Force operatives Carter (Paula Patton) and Dunn (Simon Pegg) begin by busting Hunt, convicted of wiping out a Serbian death squad to avenge his wife's murder, out of Russian prison so he can lead them on an assignment to retrieve vital intel from the Kremlin. Their mission, which they choose to accept, ends with the landmark exploding, a diversionary disaster terrorist "Cobalt" is pleased to pin on the wrong-place wrong-time Americans.
The international fallout (aw, remember the Cold War?) forces the White House to enact "Ghost Protocol," nullifying its association with the IMF, a move that leaves the agents with nothing but their wits and pretty fighting styles to halt Cobalt's steady roll toward nuclear apocalypse. It's a clever way to establish a brand of recession-era espionage — watch for in-jokes about faulty spy gadgets and paltry disguise budgets — that strips focus away from tech geekery and places it back on the team dynamic. Most of the players, particularly the baddies, are cardboard, but to scream for sincere character development is to discount the movie's potent one-for-all personality.