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Tom Cruise: no longer annoying.

It's a toss-up as to what's more goofily entertaining about this latest M:I sequel. Is it the way that Tom Cruise, when he's action-jumping/pointing/signaling/twirling, seems to have learned some of his moves from watching old tapes of Elvis Presley during the singer's white-jumpsuited, "Battle Hymn of the Republic" phase? Is it his willingness to lend an extra helping of sweaty-palm reality by putting himself into genuine danger and performing his own stunts, including the one where he jumps out of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building? Is it the moment when Tom Wilkinson announces, stone-faced, "The President has initiated Ghost Protocol," and you're still not quite sure what exactly Ghost Protocol is but it gets you all excited anyway?

The answer is "yes" to all of the above, but the reason all of this (and more) interlocks so smoothly and becomes the coolest of the Mission: Impossible films is the streamlined script by former Alias and Life on Mars writers Andre Nemec and Josh Appelbaum, and the smart, propulsive direction of Brad Bird. Bird took his experiences helming three of the most intelligent animated features of the past 10 years -- Ratatouille, The Incredibles and The Iron Giant -- and turned a cartoonish franchise into something that feels like human beings are finally in charge.

The plot involves nuclear codes in the wrong hands, hands Cruise and his team -- Paula Patton, Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner -- have to slap until the world is safe from blowing up. How they accomplish this is for the trailer to hint at and you to witness without too many pre-details, but what can be said is that it never stops moving, it's got a clean layout that refuses to dive down unnecessary rabbit holes, and clarifying details are casually thrown into the action without feeling remedial (even lines like "We have to get to that satellite before [the bad guy] does" don't come off as insulting, just helpful). It's tense, suspenseful, energetic and knows enough to throw in some lighter touches to ward off humorlessness.

Nice casting, too. We get dark-browed Michael Nyqvist, "Blomkvist" in the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as the nuclear code-stealing evildoer, and he seems a lot more at home here than his Dragon co-star Noomi Rapace does in this week's simultaneously released Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Of course, Nyqvist isn't forced to wear a corset, either, so that might have something to do with it.

And the best news of all? Cruise has dialed it back. He seems finally aware that his public persona caught up to him, that his acting career has to move in another direction, that if he's going to insist on heroics, they have to be a little more demure, and that the less he grins the less audiences are likely to hate him for it. The character of Ethan Hunt may have a touch of torment in his past, but he's better off when he's in the moment, dangling from a rope or driving a car nose down into cement instead of wistfully considering the lady he left behind or trying to be warmhearted and human with his team. That and those crazy martial arts moves will see him through for the next phase.


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