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Luckily for Tom Cruise, "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" is one of his finest action flicks, just what's needed to potentially restore some of this fallen star's box-office bankability.

For director Brad Bird, though, the fourth "Mission," rock solid as it is, ranks only as his second-best action movie, after the animated smash "The Incredibles."

Cruise may be the star here, but Bird's the story, a director who's only making his fourth movie and, remarkably, just his first live-action feature. (The film is now showing in IMAX theaters; it opens wide Tuesday night). This is the best of the "M:I" movies, far better than Brian De Palma's original, No. 2 by John Woo and even the franchise's previous high with No. 3 by J.J. Abrams, who stuck around as producer on this one.

Those three filmmakers had years and years of action stuff behind them with real, live actors. Yet along comes Bird to show that the enormous talent behind his Academy Award winners "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille" and his acclaimed cartoon adventure "The Iron Giant" transfers mighty nicely from animation to the real world.

Granted, this is the real world, "M:I"-style, where Cruise's missions and stunts truly are impossible by the laws of physics and normal, plausible storytelling constraints. But Bird applies the anything-can-happen limitlessness of cartoons and just goes for it, creating some thrilling, dizzying, amazing action sequences.

For all the complexity of the action and gimmicks, Bird and screenwriters Andri Nemec and Josh Appelbaum (executive producers on Abrams' "Alias") wisely tell a simple, good-guys-against-bad-guys story. They keep Cruise surrounded by a tight, capable supporting cast in Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg, who co-starred in "Mission: Impossible III."

The movie starts with a clever jailbreak by Cruise's Ethan Hunt, stuck in a Moscow prison for reasons unexplained until late in the story, then serves up an opening-credit montage fondly reminiscent of the old "Mission: Impossible" TV show.

Once free, Ethan is dispatched to infiltrate the Kremlin along with Impossible Missions Force agents Jane Carter (Patton) and Benji Dunn (Pegg). But it's all a setup by madman Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), who sets off a devastating explosion at the Kremlin to cover his theft of a Russian nuclear launch device and manages to finger Ethan's team for the blast.

With U.S.-Russian tension at its worst since the Cuban missile crisis, the threat that's always hung over the IMF team comes to pass: the secretary (Tom Wilkinson) disavows knowledge of their actions, leaving Hunt and his comrades on their own as they try to clear their names and stop Hendricks from instigating nuclear war.

Joining them is Wilkinson's aide, William Brandt (Renner), a guy who takes to field work a little too easily to be the desk-jockey analyst he claims he is.

What Cruise does on screen is pretty much the same-old. Ethan runs, Ethan leaps, Ethan bashes faces, Ethan runs some more. Cruise has two main modes in his acting repertoire: flash that thousand-watt smile or play the stone-face, and he mostly does the latter here, so honestly, Ethan's not all that interesting when he's standing still and talking.

That work ethic of Cruise, though, shows in every one of the spectacular action moments. For the climb up Dubai's 2,700-foot Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the filmmakers claim they had planned to re-create part of the building's exterior and have Cruise scale it on a safe soundstage. But Cruise wanted to climb the real thing, so much of the sequence was filmed with him harnessed to the building more than 1,000 feet up.

Renner's a great addition to the cast, and if there are more missions down the road, hopefully he'll be back. He exudes class, intelligence, warmth and humor to counter Cruise's often robotic Ethan.

"Ghost Protocol" ends with a talky epilogue that feels tacked-on and trite, though it offers a couple of cameos from "Mission" past.

Whatever the movie's shortcomings, director Bird more than compensates with a bullet train of action and an arsenal of cool gadgets. Maybe making cartoons has expanded his conception of what's possible in a live film.

Bird does it so well, you don't really care how impossible it all is.

***

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE GHOST PROTOCOL

3 Stars (out of 4)

STARRING: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg
DIRECTOR: Brad Bird
RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, sexuality/partial nudity and some thematic elements.
THE LOWDOWN: Ethan Hunt must clear his name and prevent an attack against the Kremlin.