After director J.J. Abrams and star Philip Seymour Hoffman gave the Mission Impossible series a shot in the arm in Mission: Impossible 3 (2006), two-time Oscar winning filmmaker Brad Bird arrives to turn that shot into a blood transfusion in the spectacular Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which, despite its espionage gadgets and crazy techno-thingmebobs, feels awesomely retrograde.

For the fourth time Tom Cruise headlines as Agent Ethan Hunt. A producer since the first film, Cruise wants to keep this baby bankrolled given it’s his one reliable gig in Hollywood — the only cert the Scientology overlord has to draw the box office numbers he believes he deserves. If the quality of the franchise, which appears to have plenty of wind left in its sails, remains at this level — nobody can assume, of course, that it will — audiences might even start to believe it too.

Bird’s previous three films (The Iron Giant, The Invincibles and Ratatouille) are all quality and all animated. Here Bird makes the transition to live action, a bold choice of projects given audience expectations for MI frenetic spectacle and the franchise’s impressive list of live action directors: Brian De Palma in the first, John Woo in the second, J.J. Abrams in the third.

A handful of set pieces give Bird challenging scenes to stage, plenty of meat on the bone: a prison escape, a mission into the Kremlin, a sandstorm chase scene and, most impressively, tight vertiginous action set at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. See the film at IMAX (a good whack of the film was shot using IMAX cameras) and you’ll feel a kick in your stomach when that gloriously large screen expands into full ratio.

The story, should you choose to accept it, properly kicks off after Hunt’s ultra-secret agency, the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), are blamed for an explosion at the Kremlin, so it is disbanded, with three agents — plus a new guy played by Jeremy Renner — having no boss to report to, no high level access and no government support.

That doesn’t stop the IMF crew from doing what they do best: ridiculous missions to save the world, set to buzzing variations of that familiar theme music. They must prevent a nuclear war from a villain not given adequate screen time to articulate why he believes in worldwide peace via nuclear bombs — but hey, who cares?

Simon Pegg plays computer expert Benji, the gadgets man and comic relief, and Pegg succeeds where others fail, largely avoiding the cloying effect funny guys often have on otherwise poker-faced action films. Renner is the weaker character but it’s not his fault; it’s like there’s a second Tom Cruise, and one is always enough.

Forgive the hokey storyline, cartoony acting from the supporting character and occasional drops in tempo and the core problem with Ghost Protocol is largely structural. The first two thirds are more entertaining, and much more high octane, than the third, despite a fun race-against-the-clock showdown.

The finale — at least a precursor to it — could have benefited from the gnarly thrills of the Burj Khalifa tower scene, which makes the cliff climbing challenge in the first sequel feel like a slow trip up an escalator. Vertiginous showdowns are a tested and tried formula for action resolution; if in doubt check The Towering Inferno (1974), Die Hard (1988), North by Northwest (1959) and, of course, Vertigo (1958).

But complaining that the entertaining end of a very entertaining movie isn’t as hoot-n-cheer worthy as its earlier moments — that Bird, in other words, didn’t succeed in saving the best to last — feels like faint criticism. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a blast.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’s Australian theatrical release date: December 15, 2011.