2011_mission_impossibl_ghost_protocol_web.jpgFor director Brad Bird, the fourth Mission: Impossible, rock solid as it is, is only his second-best action movie, after the animated smash The Incredibles. Tom Cruise is the star here, but Bird's the story — in only his fourth movie and, remarkably, first live-action feature.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol is far better than Brian De Palma's original M:I movie, 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 work with real, live actors.

Yet along comes Bird to show that the enormous talent behind his Academy Award-winning Incredibles and Ratatouille and his acclaimed cartoon adventure The Iron Giant transfers nicely to the real world.

Granted, this is the real world 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 Andre 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 M:I3.

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 M:I TV show.

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 prevent a nuclear war.

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

That work ethic of Cruise shows, though, 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 exudes class, intelligence, warmth and humor to counter Cruise's often robotic Ethan. Patton is almost too gorgeous to exist, let alone be some junior field agent instead of a supermodel. But she's a tough, wily presence, particularly in a showdown with an enemy assassin (the nearly as gorgeous Lea Seydoux).

Ghost Protocol ends with a talky epilogue that feels tacked-on and trite, though it offers a couple of cameos from Missions 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 is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence. Running time: 132 minutes.

Photo: COURTESY OF Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions

Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.