By Owen Gleiberman
January 03, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: David James

You’ve seen it a hundred times, in any thriller that finds the hero perched on a ledge or on the edge of a building’s rooftop. The camera moves up and tilts downward, in a smooth unbroken shot, so that we can all know that the actor is really standing there. By now we’re more than ready for that shot (it’s become fairly ho-hum). But there’s no way that I was ready for the extraordinary, dread-inducing Look Ma, no safety net! sequence in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol where Tom Cruise makes his way across the surface of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai — the world’s tallest skyscraper — while clinging to the building’s glass panels with a pair of electrified adhesive gloves.

Cruise, as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, is trying to break into the suite that houses the skyscraper’s ­computer servers, and this is the only way he can do it without being detected from within. Brad Bird, the director of Ghost Protocol, knows all too well that the audience will be on the lookout for any tell-tale cut, any obvious digital image, anything at all that reveals that Tom Cruise isn’t really on the side of that skyscraper. And damned if we can find one! This is a sequence so ingeniously conceived and shot that even the audience doesn’t want to look down — a sequence so death-defying that it gets you laughing at your own susceptibility (especially if, like me, you happen to have a fear of heights). Shimmying up and down and around the building’s surface, with the ground looking as if it must be a mile below, Cruise becomes a fearless human bug (think Spider-Man without the superpowers). Then, just as we’re sure that our hearts couldn’t dig any deeper into our throats, one of his gloves begins to short out and lose adhesive power. Don’t you hate when that happens?

Ghost Protocol brims with scenes that are exciting and amazing at the same time; they’re brought off with such casual aplomb that they’re funny, too. Early on, Hunt and a fellow agent, the nattering tech nerd Benji (Simon Pegg), have to penetrate the archive room of the Kremlin, and they do it in captivating silence by hiding behind a scrim that projects, to the security guard, an exact image of the hallway they’re in (minus the two of them). It’s the spy equivalent of a magic trick, and that’s the spirit of the whole movie. Ghost Protocol is fast and explosive, but it’s also a supremely clever sleight-of-hand thriller. Brad Bird, the animation wizard (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant), makes the leap to live action with the kind of skill Paul Greengrass brought to the Bourne films, only Bird, showing an animator’s miraculously precise use of visual space, has a playful, screw-tightening ingenuity all his own.

After an epic explosion rocks the Kremlin, the entire IMF gets ”disavowed,” and Hunt and his team find themselves cut off, without backup. Suddenly they’re rogue agents, like an espionage version of the Ocean’s gang, only with far more important priorities. Their mission is to stop Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist, dour costar of the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo films), a lone terrorist who has stolen the Russian nuclear codes, from launching a missile and kicking off a nuclear war. All because he’s a nihilist nut who really wants to. Hunt’s team, aside from Benji (played by Pegg with impish timing), includes the terrific Paula Patton as the dangerously beautiful and ruthless Jane, and Jeremy Renner, all moody reticence, as a desk jockey named Brandt with a backstory that makes it look, for a time, like he’s Ethan’s ambiguous adversary. Together, these four execute fake seductions and underworld meetings, take parking-garage fight scenes to new heights of layer-cake suspense, and race against the clock of a nuclear countdown that’s just jittery enough to make the unthinkable credible.

It’s become easy to take Tom Cruise’s skill for granted (even his fans do), but in Ghost Protocol he has a pulsating presence, a dynamic mind-body fusion. From the moment he gets broken out of a Russian prison cell, only to argue with Benji via video feed as chaotic violence swirls all around him, Cruise energizes the film with his no-sweat bravura. He kicks ass like an Ultimate-Fighting bruiser, he races vehicles like a demon — but more than any of that, he invests every line, every situation, with the cleanly intense, fired-up concentration of an actor who means it. Powered by Cruise’s moxie, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol proves that in a Hollywood action-ride ­culture drenched in fake adrenaline, it’s cathartic to encounter the real thing. A

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