"Mission: Impossible 4" is a cut above your average action movie.
By "average" I mean full of noise, chaos and outlandish nonsense - a sort of thinly veiled video game that wears you out with its relentless "thrills."
By contrast, the snappy new film subtitled "Ghost Protocol" boasts solid plotting, strong performances, a few laughs, plenty of excitement and - best of all - an appealing pace that doesn't assault you with nonstop mayhem.
In this image released by Paramount Pictures, from left, Tom Cruise reprising his role as Ethan Hunt, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner are shown in a scene from “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.”
The silly and pointless "MI2" did not inspire me to see No. 3, so I can't comment on how this installment relates to the others; but its plot has IMF framed and decommissioned for a horrific explosion at the Kremlin.
Yet at the same time, the remaining agents (played by Tom Cruise, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg) learn of a terrorist who plans to incite nuclear war - and they've got a new team member (very nicely played by Jeremy Renner) who falls in with them by accident but turns out to have some impressive skills.
"MI4's" triumph is the scene you've seen in previews, with Cruise's Ethan Hunt scaling the glass-and-steel sides of the world's tallest building in Dubai.
It's fiercely suspenseful, often terrifying and visually seamless; the dizzying, vertiginous backdrops look so real you could swear Cruise is doing exactly what the movie shows him doing.
"MI4" also features a dandy climax in a parking garage, attempting to field the briefcase that can disarm a warhead dashing toward America.
In this and other scenes - particularly the tense cat-and-mouse negotiations in a luxury hotel - the film achieves its gripping suspense not so much through action as through parallel plots in which skillful editing cuts back and forth between two or more nerve-wracking situations.
But when slam-bang excitement is called for, "MI4" delivers; one would have thought, for instance, that you couldn't do anything new with the inevitable car-chase - but as far as I know, no one yet has staged one in the midst of a sandstorm.
The movie's success is the more remarkable when you consider that "MI4's" director, Brad Bird, is making his live-action debut - but then again, maybe not too surprising given Bird's resume, which includes "The Iron Giant," "The Incredibles" and "Up."
Cruise has fallen out of favor lately; I've often praised some movie he's in and gotten the response, "Yeah, but I don't like Tom Cruise."
Well, I do. He still looks great, he still makes a solid tough guy, he still does a lot of his own stunt work and he's still got the chops for tenderness and introspection - which works nicely in a few scenes here, especially the never-saw-it-coming conclusion.
My wager is this won't be Brad Bird's last live-action film.