Jittery 'Mission Impossible' a sprint from start to end – 2 1/2 stars

With "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol," director Brad Bird makes his live-action feature debut, having made a name for himself and a few hundred million for Disney/Pixar with "The Incredibles" and one of the freshest comedies of the last few years, "Ratatouille." It's obvious but probably needs restating: Live action is a different beast from animation. Audiences perceive acts of violence and outsized physical punishment differently when presented with actors getting knocked around. At the same time, a great deal of digital animation today has effectively erased the notion of stylized unreality and sensorial distance. When a mole whacks another mole with a hickory stick in "Rango," for example, the photorealistic quality of the image renders the act unfunny. It's not slapstick. It just hurts.

The "Mission: Impossible" franchise is only partly interested in human-scale action. Across four dissimilar directors, Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and now Bird, the big-screen adventures of superspy Ethan Hunt and the Impossible Mission Force have put the "hyper" in hyperbolic grandiosity. Bird was hired by producer and star Tom Cruise largely on the strength of the way he hurtled through "The Incredibles," bending the laws of traffic and physics. Reason enough, they figured, to enlist him for "Ghost Protocol," which begins with a Moscow prison break, proceeds quickly to a terrorist bombing of the Kremlin, skedaddles off to Dubai and a break-in at the world's tallest building and then heads to Mumbai, chasing nuclear madmen, Russian goons and Paula Patton's cleavage.

Not that there's a ghost of implied sexual activity in this picture, which manages to be a pretty good time for much of its overgenerous 132 minutes. The closest anyone comes to doing something other than running or jumping or throwing an adversary through the nearest window? Jeremy Renner, playing a blase IMF analyst with a cryptic resume, survives (barely) a round of ridiculous derring-do and then, referencing Patton's mission to extract top-secret info out of a Mumbai zillionaire (Anil Kapoor, with a fantastic pompadour), he deadpans: "Next time, I get to seduce the rich guy."

Speaking of running … doesn't Cruise look like a flat-out maniac when he runs at top speed, those arms bent at precisely 90 degrees, eyes halfway to Charles Manson land? I mean, seriously crazy? I suppose I'd look the same way if I tried to run half that fast, chasing an adversary (played by Michael Nyqvist) heck-bent on launching a nuclear strike on America.

Along with Cruise, Renner and Patton, the team includes Simon Pegg as the upbeat computer expert, back from "M:I3." He brings a welcome touch of levity. Bird has serious promise outside the animation realm; in "Ghost Protocol" he errs, I think, by shoving the camera too close to the bodies in the frame, so that the momentum and spatial relationships become awfully hard to parse. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to see what actors and their stuntpeople can achieve in shots lasting longer than the time it takes to forget "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows."

Speaking of old-fashioned … the "Ghost Protocol" score by Michael Giacchino is old-school in all the right ways; the composer pulls sweet variations on Lalo Schifrin's incomparably cool TV show theme, amplifying the action without competing with it. For director Bird, next time he tackles one of these big-budget blowouts, his mission, should he choose to accept it, is to choreograph the flow of the action and then figure out how the camera can sharpen the impact. In some way other than another round of too-close close-ups, that is.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol' — 2 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense action and violence)

Running time: 2:12

Opens: Friday at large-format and Imax theaters, Dec. 21 in wide release

CHICAGO

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