The makers of Ghost Protocol have done the impossible. They have reinvigorated the Mission: Impossible franchise.

Bucking the trend of movies in a series getting worse and worse over time, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is that rare film that is better than its predecessors. Following the underrated third movie in the series (a film that saw regular agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) rescuing his wife), Ghost Protocol is back to the series’ usual shtick of saving the world from madmen who want just the opposite.

Ghost Protocol hits the ground running with a gunfight that ends in tragedy for the Impossible Mission Force. On a quest to retrieve a package containing nuclear launch codes, Ethan Hunt and his team fall into a trap that implicates them with the bombing of the Kremlin. After being disavowed by the U.S.A. under the “Ghost Protocol” policy, Hunt, Agent Carter (Paula Patton), Benji (Simon Pegg), and mysterious analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner) go on a quest to vindicate themselves, as well as trying to hinder a madman, codenamed “Cobalt” (Michael Nyqvist), from initiating a global nuclear war.

The change of director for this film seemed unwarranted, but the decision ultimately paid off. There were some doubts as to whether Brad Bird, a director who generally works with animated films (RatatouilleThe IncrediblesThe Iron Giant), could make an effective live-action director, but those doubts are eliminated with this film. Bird does a fine job of taking what is a rather messy plot and making it easily understandable for the audience. He brings the energetic style we saw in The Incredibles, and it shows with perhaps the most kinetic action seen yet in a Mission: Impossible flick.

Another area on the technical side that deserves credit is the cinematography. The film’s setting in Dubai creates many exciting opportunities for the storyboard and the filmmakers took advantage of them. The Burj Khalifa scene, where Hunt has to scale the world’s tallest building, is every bit as good as the trailer hyped it to be, and a chase through a sandstorm is at once brilliant and chaotic. And, for all the action in the film, the filmmakers do not make the mistake of shaking the camera (think The Bourne Trilogy). Never in the film was it hard to see exactly what was going on.

What was stunning was the high quality of acting in this film. Cruise does a good job at continuing his long-term role as frantic Ethan Hunt, and what is impressive about the rest of the cast is that they are all, for the most part, newcomers to the Mission: Impossible series. Renner is fine at portraying a very sarcastic and slightly insecure Brandt, and plays his part on the team like a veteran. Patton manages her part as Agent Carter well, although there were times when she wasn’t entirely convincing as an angry team member bent on revenge for the death of one of her colleagues. Best of all is Simon Pegg, who also appeared in Mission: Impossible III, as an agent in one of his first field missions. Pegg is probably known best for movies such as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and he brings his talent as a much-needed source of comic relief in this film.

The villains were adequately acted as well, although this is one of the rarer films these days that are more concerned with the heroes than about character studies of the evildoers. Nyqvist is convincing as the main antagonist, an insane terrorist whose only goal is worldwide destruction. Other good additions to the Mission: Impossible stable of villains are Lea Seydoux, who acts as cold-blooded assassin Sabine Moreau, and Vladimir Makshov, who plays a disgruntled Russian agent who thinks Ethan and his team bombed his nation’s landmark.

Perhaps most surprising was how different this film was than the others in the series. Ghost Protocol has a much more lighthearted approach than the previous Mission: Impossible films, and it is a welcome change. Often the characters are found joking around or delivering sarcastic comments to each other, even in tense situations. Brad Bird does a great job working with the characterization of all the roles, as we see when the agents struggle with their personal interests as well as human error. In a sense, this humanizes them and makes our journey with them through their mission much more suspenseful and enjoyable.

Despite the changes, Ghost Protocol actually has a lot in common with the television series of old. When the IMF secretary (Tom Wilkinson) declares that tension hasn’t been so high between America and Russia “since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” we are brought back to the Cold War politics so central to the original TV series. Many plot devices from the show are used as well, of course, including the ubiquitous mask. Lovers of the originals, you have been warned.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is the uncommon type of film that lives up to the hype and surprises you with its quality. In a time when PG-13 action films are as abundant as they are ordinary, this movie stands out. With only days left in the calendar year, it may very well be the best action movie of 2011. And it’s been released in IMAX format. If you don’t mind shelling out the few extra bucks, you may find it worthwhile. Dubai looks great on the mammoth screen.