Don’t look now, but the Russians are bad guys again.

Who would have thought that a movie set in 2011 would include talk of nuclear launch codes and global annihilation? But that decidedly-retro plot is part of what makes Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol a rousing success– a smart, tight, and highly entertaining ‘popcorn flick’ during these cold winter months.

The fourth film in the franchise opens with agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) getting broken out of a Moscow jail with the help of fellow IMFer (and returnee from 2006’s Mission: Impossible III) Benji (the hilarious Simon Pegg). From there, it’s off to the Kremlin where the IMF team is hunting down an operative named Cobalt (the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Michael Nykvist).

But just as they almost find what they’re looking for, the Kremlin explodes, IMF is implicated, and Ethan and the gang must clear their name and, oh yes, save the Earth from nuclear annihilation.

With stunts and tricks and suspense that make the original Mission: Impossible look downright pedestrian, Ghost Protocol proves to be the best of the franchise to date (so good, in fact, that a fifth film will be in the works soon, if not already).

Cruise, who still has his fair share of naysayers, will no doubt silence some of his critics with his performance here. It’s obviously nothing that will be remembered for its nuance and heartfelt emotion, but that’s not why we’re here; Cruise puts the movie on his back and then spends the better part of two hours doing all of the heavy lifting.

Whether he’s rappelling a hundred stories up on the side of the world’s tallest building, deftly orchestrating a meet-and-greet with one of the world’s most feared assassins, or speeding after the bad guy in what looks to be among the world’s worst sandstorms, his no-nonsense assault on our senses is just what the franchise needed to return to relevance.

Director Brad Bird helms his first live-action film, bringing the same enthusiasm he brought to Pixar’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille. And just as those helped redefine animated movies, Ghost Protocol does the same for big-budget, stunt-heavy, action movies. The camera work alone is stunning; there are several times when a single shot will make your stomach feel like it’s coming out of your nose.

Writers Josh Appelbaum and AndrĂ© Nemec, tackling their first screenplay after years of quality TV work (Alias, Life on Mars), have crafted a multi-layered script that hits far more than it misses. There’s enough intrigue and suspense for several Jason Bourne films, enough comedy to give your brain (and stomach) a welcome break periodically, and even a nice little coda that shows the writers didn’t forget the M:I films that came before it.

Generally, the more sequels a movie has, the more the franchise deteriorates, but Ghost Protocol accomplishes its own impossible mission– not only keep the series going but improve it.

4/5 stars