rating: 4It is fair to say that, on paper, the fourth entry in the frustratingly inconsistent Mission: Impossible series has plenty of potential for failure, what with the director's chair shifting once again, this time to inexperienced live-action helmer Brad Bird, whose credentials rest solely with three - admittedly highly-acclaimed - animated films (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille). Combine this with apparent studio apprehension at Tom Cruise's commercial appeal after last year's disappointing returns on his Summer vehicle Knight and Day - thus the cast's beefing out with rising The Hurt Locker star Jeremy Renner - and you have plenty of ingredients for a well-intentioned misfire. That Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, is the best film of the bunch, then, comes as an especially joyous seasonal surprise, ticking all of the boxes that the previous films have at one time or another seemed to miss. When IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is carrying out a mission to retrieve Russian nuclear launch codes from the Kremlin, not only are the codes intercepted by crazed fundamentalist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), but he also decimates the building with a bomb, framing the IMF for it and causing the Russian government to treat it as an act of war. The IMF is promptly disavowed entirely, and it's now up to Hunt, along with foppish techie Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), gorgeous and determined Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and mysterious analyst William Brandt (Renner) to prevent all-out nuclear warfare between Russia and the U.S. The term "thrill ride" is loftily thrown around to especially describe a lot of disposable Summer fare, but no film in recent memory is as aptly described this way as Ghost Protocol, and that's meant in the most complimentary way possible. Essentially a series of conjoined suspense sequences and loopy set-pieces - interspersed with the occasional breath for exposition - Brad Bird has crafted a kinetic and nerve-wracking spectacle which puts to shame the previous efforts of far more experienced directors such as Brian De Palma and John Woo. It's all too apt that Ghost Protocol plays out with a faintly cartoonish action aesthetic - larger than life but never distractingly over-the-top, ala Woo's effort - and it seems that Bird's training in animated mayhem prepped him well for his work here. Divided into three perfectly-paced thirds - the set-up, the botched job, and the showdown - it might surprise some that Ghost Protocol isn't in a hurry to tell its story, opening with a lengthy sequence in which Hunt is pulled out of deep cover in a Russian prison, analogous to the meat of the story but hardly a necessary entry point. In fact, 40 minutes pass before Jeremy Renner shows up and the Kremlin explosion happens, but the build-up is so relentlessly entertaining, with its ludicrous gadgets and giddy stealth set-pieces, that you won't even notice. Especially impressive is a scene in which Hunt and Dunn infiltrate the Kremlin using a special screen which can mimic a background, and match it to the perspective of anyone whose field of vision it can perceive, thus allowing them to sneak by undetected (it makes more sense in the film and has a hilarious payoff too). So keen is the film to satisfy, in fact, that some might describe it as an exhausting experience; downtime is hard to come by, something liable to irk older audience members, but the core audience - that is, decidedly younger - are likely to get a huge kick out of this no-nonsense approach. Impressively, despite rarely slowing down to explain the impending threat, this still plays as the most intelligent and remotely plausible of the four films, perhaps because the latter two acts see our heroes largely stripped of their zany gadgets and field backup - with a few amusing technological exceptions - such that the action is more hard-edged and Hunt especially seems more vulnerable. The film's best scene - an attempt by Hunt to scale the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, using special magnetic gloves - might leave your palms sweating as it did mine; we know Hunt isn't going to fall, but the vertiginous photography - best viewed in IMAX for maximum discomfort - combined with Cruise's gutsy commitment to doing a lot of the stunt work himself, makes it a stomach-knotting experience. It also gives Simon Pegg a few ripe one-liners to play around with, and overall, with this much stronger script, he is a far more effective comedy sidekick than he was the last time around. The final act is admittedly a little more on the generic side, as the gang unleash their inner-James Bond at a party, though Paula Patton barely staying in an absurdly revealing dress and some surprisingly unflinching, brutal violence - for which it should probably recieve consideration for the Sound Editing and Sound Mixing Academy Awards - will keep most interested. More interesting is what follows; once it is all said and done, the emotional set-ups established earlier are resolved in a manner which actually moves the characters forward - particularly Renner's Brandt - and dare I say, makes one look forward to another Mission, which is surely already in the pipeline. It's just a shame Ving Rhames is relegated to a 2-minute cameo at the film's conclusion, yet one thinks maybe the script would require a detrimental overhaul for him to keep up with everything his younger comrades are doing. And for those wondering whether Cruise's wife (played by Michelle Monaghan in the last film) is disregarded with a lame one-liner, don't worry; it's satisfyingly resolved to say the least, without giving anything away. Retaining the series' innate goofiness while taking the action and emotional stakes to new highs, this is the best Mission: Impossible yet. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is released exclusively on IMAX from Friday Dec 16th in the U.S. before going wide a week later. In the UK, the IMAX screenings are Dec 21st, going wide on Dec 26th.