Levity enters the new "Mission: Impossible," but there's no shortage of spectacular action.
Who says saving the world has to be a matter of life and death?
In the fourth "Mission: Impossible" outing, Tom Cruise averts nuclear doomsday with a fusion of nail-biting anxiety and wry humor. This film isn't concerned with creating an air of heart-attack urgency -- its curtain-raiser, a prison riot, unfolds to Dean Martin's breezy "Ain't That a Kick in the Head?" -- but for jovial escapism, it's right on target.
The latest entry in the "Mission" franchise owes its light, jaunty tone to animation ace Brad Bird, who made "The Incredibles," among other masterpieces. The first Pixar director to tackle live action, Bird brings fresh energy, tremendous excitement and, above all, exuberant imagination to what could have been a wearying genre exercise.
This is a spy thriller that knows its job and does it with an agreeably light touch. Superspy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his Impossible Missions Force are accused of bombing the Kremlin, a thrillingly realized disaster that sends onion domes toppling into Moscow streets. You have to admire a film that opens with a wonderfully preposterous cataclysm that would be the grand finale for most of its competitors. For Bird, "over the top" is a goal. Washington pulls the plug on the IMF, leaving Hunt with only computer geek Benji (English comic Simon Pegg), stressed-out field agent Jane (Paula Patton) and data analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner) to defuse a looming Armageddon.
The plot may be perfunctory (again with the stolen nuclear-launch codes?) but Bird has choreographed some of the more remarkable stunt scenes ever committed to film. The bangs, booms and yelps are here in quantity -- especially for viewers suffering from fear of heights, who will find several sequences excruciating.
Cruise rappelling down the face of the towering Burj Khalifa isn't the half of it. Much thought has gone into revitalizing obligatory scenes like gas-stomping car chases with tense, novel twists. One race sweeps Cruise into a zero-visibility Dubai sandstorm. Another pushes him into a countdown-clock crisis amid chaotic Mumbai gridlock. A bruising fistfight with the villain (Swedish star Michael Nyqvist as a peacenik madman) takes place in an automated parking garage as dozens of vehicles are raised and lowered on mechanical arms. The combat unfolds with brutal grace and cleverness as the field of battle shifts from horizontal to vertical without warning, a Rubik's Cube of mayhem.
Marbled into the mix is a batty sense of the absurd that offsets Cruise's customary heaviness of spirit. When the public phone that gives Ethan his assignment fails to self-destruct on cue, he halts in his tracks, walks back to the kiosk and thumps it. And then it erupts with a rather flatulent backfire. Pegg operates an array of wacky gadgets, from antigravity underwear to a portable mirage projector that is the best iPad app ever. We are definitely not in despairing Jason Bourne territory here. This film doesn't care whether you're quivering from excitement or laughter.