It is a pleasure to report that director Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was worth every penny of the high ticket price I will pay to see it a second and third time. In this moviegoer’s opinion, it’s easily the finest installment in an otherwise mediocre franchise. Moreover, it’s leaves X-Men: First Class, Captain America, and the rest of 2011’s glorified Saturday morning cartoons in its dust.

Give me another ticket, Mr. Bird. I want to take this ride again.

This Mission: Impossible episode begins with our hero, special agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), in a jail cell in Russia. Why? Long story. The movie will get around to that eventually.

What really matters is this:

A renegade Russian named Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist of the original Dragon Tattoo film) has decided that the world needs to be “rebooted” through an act of nuclear devastation. It has something to do with his wacky theory that this will advance human evolution. Whatever — he’s just a few launch-code numbers away from launching nuclear missiles that will trigger a war between the U.S. and Russia.

Sounds like a job for the Impossible Missions Force (IMF)… right?

Well, if you’ve seen the previous films, no… the IMF team haven’t exactly become heroes of choice for moviegoers over the past 15 years. Brian De Palma’s initial feature was enjoyable enough, especially for introducing a large American audience to the international film goddess Emmanuelle Béart and for helping to revive John Voight’s career. But John Woo’s sequel was atrocious. J.J. Abrams, in his first attempt as a feature film director, improved things, but the movie amounted to little more than a two-hour episode of Alias starring Tom Cruise instead of Jennifer Garner. Meanwhile, audiences kept referring to the hero as “Tom Cruise.” The name and personality of his character, Ethan Hunt, just weren’t sticking.

Nevertheless, Ethan Hunt’s Russian imprisonment brings a team of talented action-movie sidekicks too set him free. They need him, you see, so he can lead them into action and save the world one more time.

As Ghost Protocol revs its engines, things get complicated in a hurry. No sooner has Hunt made his first move against the villain than he and his team are framed, made to look like they’re the real terrorists. To make a long story short, these undercover agents have to go even deeper undercover, operating without the protection of the American government, in order to prevent humankind from being vaporized. They need somebody to lean on, and have nobody but each other.

Yeah, I know. It sounds like the conventional absurdity of a zillion action movies.

But as you may remember, this stuff can be a whole lot of fun if it’s done well.

At the feast of cinema, action flicks like these are the plate of chocolate chip cookies, or the bowl of buttered popcorn. Their plots are so mechanical, their characters so sketchy, they make the Indiana Jones narratives look like Shakespeare. They’re circus acts, and they run on stunts and cleverness and surprise. They appeal to the Saturday morning cartoon fan in all of us. We’ve worked hard, and now it’s weekend: We want to see something outrageous, zany, an adrenalin rush that will make us forget our troubles for a while. If we ask for that and are instead delivered something deeply meaningful — or worse, realistic — well, it won’t be very satisfying.

But action flicks are not an easy art. Some action filmmakers fulfill the recipe with cheap ingredients and sloppy cooking. They make disposable, forgettable movies. But once in a while, you find a director who takes this stuff seriously, demands excellent ingredients, and invests so much imagination and invention that the result is memorable, worth revisiting, and worth recommending.

What does an action movie need to rise above predictability and mediocrity?

First, it needs engaging action-movie personalities. And this one has them.

Tom Cruise, looking a little more rugged (and thus, a little more human) than normal, is allowed to do what he does best: Play a determined, unbreakable action figure.

Unlike Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, or even Bruce Willis, Cruise has never created characters who convey much complexity, depth, intelligence, or emotional range. His irrepressible zeal is both a weakness and a strength. It prevents him from excelling in quieter moments, in emotional scenes, or in ensemble settings (Cruise cannot help but become the center of attention). But it enables him to commit to scenes of flamboyant action with such enthusiasm that we can almost believe him when he dodges bullets, or sandstorms. He’s more athlete than actor.

Ethan Hunt, being a man of action, determination, and courageous acrobatics, is the most perfect fit for Cruise’s talents that I’ve seen.

Cruise’s colleagues are also fit for their tasks. Simon Pegg is endearingly amusing as a somewhat untrustworthy tech wizard. Jeremy Renner is a rather unnecessary but engaging new addition, playing an analyst dragged into action that uncovers his secret abilities and wounds. Paula Patton is the fighting machine/supermodel who is as ready to use her sex appeal as her deadly kickboxing skills to get the job done. (If she’d been given some fight scenes in Precious, I might have liked that movie a great deal more.) She even gets to beat the snot out of Léa Seydoux, which I enjoyed more than I should have. (Seydoux’s character in Lourdes was so aggravating that I found genuinely guilty pleasure in seeing her so vigorously punished.)

Villains are usually the highlight in films of this genre. They give us the most colorful characterization, the most flamboyant performances. Not this time. As the nuclear-war-wishing madman, Nyqvist isn’t asked to do much more than carry a steel briefcase, look menacing, and fight Tom Cruise. It’s a shame. Villains don’t have to steal the show, and frankly I’m grateful when they don’t. But they should certainly be better than boring.

Second, a great action movie needs a propulsive soundtrack to enhance — but not overwhelm — the action. Michael Giacchino delivers just that here, embracing the franchise’s theme to excellent effect.

Third, it needs three or four thrilling action sequences that are just persuasive enough to seem dangerous and just imaginative enough to surprise us.

That’s where Ghost Protocol is supremely satisfying.

If I described these scenes to you — the jailbreak, the escape from a third-story window, the infiltration of the Kremlin, the adventure in Dubai’s skyscraping Burj Khalifa tower, the adventure on the exterior of the tower, the high-speed-chase in a sandstorm, the climactic battle in an automated parking garage — they would sound absurd. And they are.

What makes them so thrilling is how they manage to be convincing, suspenseful, and full of surprises in spite of their absurdity. How is this accomplished in a way that makes audiences cheer instead of scoff? We need actors who fully commit to every moment, stunts that are breathtakingly executed, editing and direction that draws us in rather than beating us senseless, and good sense of pacing between fast and slow, noise and silence, chaos and control.

Brad Bird, directing his first non-animated feature, shows he has the stuff of action-movie genius.

Some amusement park rides invite you to sit in a stationary chair, strap on goggles, and fly through a simulated environment. But there’s no real wind, no real sights and sounds, no real sense of risk. It’s all just the simulation of action. Me… I prefer real roller-coasters. I like to move through real space, feel wind in my hair, and see that I am actually suspended high above the earth before the rush of plummeting.

Ghost Protocol succeeds by doing action-movie thrills the old-fashioned way.

During the best scenes, I remembered why I still love Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard so much. This movie isn’t nearly as supreme an accomplishment as those action films, but in the age of 300, Clash of the Titans, Immortals, Avatar and Tin Tin, it’s refreshing to watch an action movie made primarily of footage, not animation. While there is a lot of digital enhancement at work, it’s just that — enhancement. We always have at least one foot firmly planted in the stuff of performance and real-world materials. Actors, stunts, environments: The stuff that makes us ask “How did they do that?” That’s a question we don’t ask if the images appear overly altered by digital effects. The vehicles, the expressions, the animals, the dizzying falls, the explosions, the environments — it feels more staged than illustrated, more captured than generated.

When we watch an onstage escape artist submerged in a water tank try to escape a straitjacket, or watch a professional magician “saw a woman in half”, we feel a different kind of suspense than we do if we’re watching a cartoon of the same thing. There is a greater sense of mystery as to how the illusion is being achieved under such restrictions, with such limited resources. There is a sense of risk that something could go wrong.

Similarly, there is a reason we enjoy watching live sports more than cartoons of sports.

I don’t mean to criticize digital animation. That’s an art all its own. But it’s a different art than cinematography — the preservation of events that played out before a camera. The thrills of the original Star Wars films were a different experience than those of the subsequent “prequels,” primarily because so much of what we saw onscreen in 1977, 1980, and 1983 had been incarnate, embodied, existing in three-dimensions with weight and texture and color. Much of what we saw in the prequels was painted, representing environments and objects and costumes that no one ever touched. Thus, the Yoda performed by Frank Oz holds our attention in a more exciting way than the one created by a team of digital artists.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol could have been just a digital cartoon with a few familiar human faces pasted over the top of its animated automatons. What is refreshingly remarkable and compelling is that so much of its cartoonish action is made from real-world stuff in front of cameras.

That’s why the real hero of Ghost Protocol is Brad Bird.

With three celebrated animated features to his name Bird has earned a sterling reputation. Put him at the controls of a cartoon adventure, and you’ll get something worth watching over and over and over again. His films excel in visual design, character development, and thoughtful storytelling that subverts clichés and steers us in unexpected and rewarding directions.

Note how The Iron Giant — perhaps the most beloved “Transformer” the big-screen’s ever seen — is not known for how he smashes and destroys and fights, but for how he protects a boy and resists the impulse to blast away at what opposes him.

Note how The Incredibles are unusual in the realm of superheroes in that their real triumphs can be found in how they function as a supportive and loving family, how they resist temptation, how they invest their powers in service with excellence and responsibility.

Note how Ratatouille does not conclude with the hero’s success in business terms, but with his success in matters of art and conscience. (Remy the Rat doesn’t defeat his enemy; he appeals to what is best in the enemy, leading to redemption. What does he defeat? Cynicism. Arrogance. Resentment. He wins not by violently opposing someone, but by doing good with excellence, so that mediocrity is exposed for what it is.)

So how does Brad Bird surpass our Mission: Impossible expectations?

Where many filmmakers strive to create animated features that look like a real world, Bird, having already achieved that, is now demonstrating that he can do the opposite — create real-world scenes in which things happen that would only seem possible in cartoons.

That’s really Tom Cruise leaping from a ledge toward a passing vehicle and dodging bullets on a Russian street. That’s really Tom Cruise hanging from wires outside of the 130-story Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. Cruise isn’t in as much danger as he seems to be, but still… we’re watching stunts performed high above the earth by the same actor who will do interviews later, not by a stuntman or an animated avatar.

Seeing this, I think I have finally come around to appreciating Tom Cruise’s place at the movies. We just don’t have many actors willing to throw themselves into actual action the way he does. And Brad Bird has given him a perfect opportunity to do just that.

With help from screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, Bird also upends several of the franchise’s conventions. In this episode, the fictional super-spy technology that is always designed to excite our imaginations… fails. Repeatedly. This strips the superheroes of their usual advantage, and requires them to think fast, devise scrappy solutions, and behave with compelling desperation. This cynicism about technology is refreshing. And more importantly — it’s familiar. It is part of our daily experience, and that makes the world of Ghost Protocol more persuasive, its characters more sympathetic.

I do say “characters” with some amusement. Mission: Impossible has never given us characters of any particular depth. Bravo. Appelbaum and Nemec deserve credit for not pretending that this is Shakespeare. They give the characters just enough personality. And they give the story just enough drama, context, connection to previous installments, and just enough slack for us to sense a sequel on the horizon.

But if we’re lucky, Bird won’t just direct the next one — he’ll write it too.

Bird has already raised the bar for feature animation in both spectacle and storytelling. Could he be planning to do the same thing for live-action adventure films? If that’s his mission, it looks like he’s chosen to accept it.

Director – Brad Bird; writers – Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec; based on the television series created by Bruce Geller; director of photography – Robert Elswit; editor – Paul Hirsch; music – Michael Giacchino; “Mission: Impossible” theme – Lalo Schifrin; production design – Jim Bissell; costumes – Michael Kaplan; producers – Tom Cruise, J. J. Abrams and Bryan Burk. Starring – Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Jeremy Renner (Brandt), Simon Pegg (Benji), Paula Patton (Jane), Michael Nyqvist (Hendricks), Vladimir Mashkov (Sidorov), Josh Holloway (Hanaway), Anil Kapoor (Brij Nath), Léa Seydoux (Sabine Moreau) and Tom Wilkinson (I.M.F. Secretary). Paramount Pictures. 2 hours 13 minutes.