I have a soft spot for the sort of top-shelf kicks typified by Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol, which will inevitably be known years from now, as you hunt it down on Netflix, as "the Dubai one." They're mostly forgettable movies, led by a forgettable movie star doing his forgettable thing, but they're charming enough just for the gadgets and globetrottery, particularly since director J.J. Abrams nudged the franchise to the forefront of spare-no-expense espionage spectacle with its third film. M:I-3 was a booming debut for Abrams, who went on to direct Star Trek and Super 8; Ghost Protocol is every bit the coming-out party for Brad Bird, who has never directed a live-action film before. As it turns out, he's better at it than most people.
To this point Bird's trade has been in animation, from The Simpsons to 1999's still-undervalued The Iron Giant, but it was his breakthrough work on Pixar's The Incredibles that led Abrams, an executive producer on M:I-4, to hand-pick him for the gig. There's a good argument to be made for The Incredibles as the premier action film of the last decade, thanks to all the careful decisions that go into each animated frame and the resulting polish in pace and execution. It appears now that Bird is so gifted that he can maintain that kind of control in real life, even as he dangles Tom Cruise from the world's tallest building. (That scene and others were shot in true IMAX, and M:I-4 may be the most worthy upsell of the year, even on Pinnacle's fake IMAX.)
There's a clean, linear style to Bird's set pieces—ranging from a vending-machine-style Mumbai parking garage to the basement of the Kremlin—that's notable for its rarity. The trend in these kinds of movies—at least the less dignified ones than the Mission: Impossibles—is to let chaos fill in where conception falls short. It's not that Michael Bay is necessarily cutting things together too fast, it's that he's being a total bonehead about it. Bird understands that the spectacle is there to serve the suspense.
As for the inevitable downtime, or "plot," it can at least be said that Ghost Protocol is easily the series' most straightforward entry, dispensing with the convoluted mash of politics and personal intrigue in favor of a dear old standby: A terrorist is after a nuclear weapon, and the elements he needs are spread across the Near East! The simplicity is a mixed blessing; Cruise's team (including series newcomers Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner, plus a welcome promotion for M:I-3's Simon Pegg) may be the most appealing yet, and their high-stakes palling around is much more fun without the weight of secrets or deceit. But looking past how handsome the film is—literally, I suppose, as well as figuratively—there's not much left beyond Tom Cruise and a few functionless cameos to pinpoint Ghost Protocol as a sequel rather than a spiffily generic action movie.
The only real problem with the film is, unfortunately, a big one: The nuclear strategist/madman (Michael Nyqvist, from the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) could not be a less interesting villain, and figures only minimally into the story before a superhuman showdown with Cruise. The script, by Abrams associates Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, lays down some heady ideas about the global palate-cleansing of mutually assured destruction—"nuclear peace," if you will—but then seems content that those ideas are enough to set the external conflict into motion. What else would you need a villain for, after all?
Contrast this with Abrams' superior M:I-3, which let Philip Seymour Hoffman loose on Cruise in one of 2006's best roles. There was a volatility to Hoffman's character, and a cloudiness to his goals, that informed every moment of that film; in Ghost Protocol, there's only the tried and true threat of nuclear genocide and no human face worth hanging the villainy on. (Léa Seydoux makes an impression as a foxy, diamond-crazy French assassin, but the accursed blandness of her partners in crime leaves her out of place.)
Still, it's hard not to recommend Ghost Protocol, and even to grant Bird an edge over Abrams in producing the sort of respectably mindless thrills the Mission: Impossible series has somehow become the standard-bearer for. Time will tell whether Brad Bird has a total-package Star Trek-style triumph in him, but it's going to be exciting to find out.