It’s possible, I’m beginning to suspect, that the Mission: Impossible movies can be assessed by Tom Cruise’s haircut. In Brian De Palma’s 1996 original (well, original movie, anyway), Cruise’s hair was cut bluntly, curtly almost. It was smart but utilitarian, harshly professional. He then sported a long, messy coif in John Woo’s altogether misguided Mission: Impossible 2 -- the hair, like the movie, did strange disservice to Mr. Cruise. In J.J. Abrams’ underappreciated 2006 outing, the short hair was blessedly back but this time it was a bit more rakish, it had spike and character to it. And now we have upon us Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, in which Cruise unfortunately has long locks once more, but they’re at least not so unruly as they were in Woo’s film. He doesn’t look great, but he’s looked worse.

This is all a (rather belabored) way of saying that Ghost Protocol is not secret super agent Ethan Hunt’s best adventure, but it is certainly not his worst either. There is a vim and zip to the movie that feels lacking in so many other action adventure yarns these days. That is perhaps owed to our friendly familiarity with this movie franchise, though they all function as such separate entities that I’m not sure we’ve really had all that much opportunity to get to know any of Ethan Hunt’s tics or foibles or vulnerabilities. He’s much more of a functional implement than any kind of genuine character. So really these movies live or die at the director’s hand. (And, of course, the haircut.) Lucky for Ghost Protocol, then, that Brad Bird is at the helm, making his live-action feature debut with pleasing confidence.

Bird, the visual dreamer behind such animated wonderments as the wistful The Iron Giant and the eye-popping The Incredibles, is almost a machinist – he has a particular eye for how every moving part in a sequence functions. He’s a master at clearly establishing the physics of his movies, and then revels in taking the action just beyond them. He’s playful in a way that not many directors are, especially ones as deftly in control of a film’s minutia as he is. So Cruise and company made a clever choice in picking Bird for this picture – he’s a spectaclist, but capable of more whimsy than the similarly visually gifted Abrams brought to the deadly serious M:I 3. The question is, though, how much whimsy should a movie like this have?

For those of you curious, but really why does it matter, the plot of this film involves stolen missile codes and a philosopher-terrorist hell-bent on bringing about a nuclear apocalypse that he thinks will cure the world. That sounds far more operatic in writing than it is in the movie, though. The latter three M:I pictures are firmly MacGuffin games, the What and Why of which having little ground on the How. But yes, nuclear catastrophe looms and it falls to Ethan Hunt and his team, but really just to Ethan Hunt, to save the day. The globe is trotted – we go to Budapest, to Mumbai, to Moscow, to Dubai, to Seattle (heh, Seattle) – and, I believe I am spoiling nothing here, the world does not disintegrate into puffs of mushroom clouds. It’s all very rote, very basic – the script, by television writing partners Josh Appelbaum and Andrew Nemec, manages to be both muddled and at times almost gapingly simplistic.

But, again, these details aren’t really what matter with a movie like this. What matter are grand action sequences done with flair and bravado, and the film certainly delivers on those requirements. There is a giddy, stomach-plunging set piece at the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, that had the audience I was in laughing with dizziness (see this in IMAX if you can). The film opens with a guy willingly throwing himself off a roof, firing a gun as he goes. The Kremlin blows up. Big, visceral, vertigo-inducing things happen, and yet there is an odd lightness to it. There’s a wink that feels almost childish.

Like many of his peers at Pixar, where he made Incredibles and the lovely Ratatouille, Bird seems to have a fascination with imbuing objects with life. The knickknacks in Ghost Protocol don’t talk the way they do in Toy Story, but they do whine and whir and move like creatures. A mechanized adhesive glove (the gadgets in this movie are ridiculous and wonderful) sputters and chirps like an angry bird, a robot sort of something (who knows!) follows a man’s movements like an imitating animal, the platforms of a mechanized high-rise parking garage move as if part of a colony. The way Bird takes moments to observe these gizmos, as if he’s both created and found them, and gives them sprinkles of humor, is kind and pleasant, but I’m not entirely sure kind and pleasant are what’s required here. Obviously these movies need dashes of humor lest they crumple under the weight of their own absurdity, but the little Birdian moments feel almost too cutesy, kiddie. This is his first grownup movie, so we should cut him some slack, but his sense of context perhaps needs work.

But of course there are far worse things one can do to an action movie than make it a little too cheery. Mostly, Ghost Protocol is a bumpy good time. The last act of the movie drags a bit, as tends to happen in these movies, but the end results remain satisfying. And it must be said that, despite whatever alien episode he’s been personally going through for the past half decade or so, Tom Cruise is still Tom motherfucking Cruise, and it’s a joy to see him firmly in his element here. Our first glimpse of him in the movie is in shadowy profile, and only after some rigamarole does Bird let the camera finally settle and focus on Cruise straight on. “And here he is!” it seems to say. It’s a kind gesture from Bird to Cruise, giving him this movie star moment even though his star has perhaps faded and browned in his career's latter days. Bird is right to show him some respect, at least here in the winsomely noisy environs of an Ethan Hunt caper. During the film, one begins to wish Cruise could exist here, where he belongs, for all time, thrumming along with that easy, cocky competence of his forever. Oh, would that were possible!

*****

Stuck forever is exactly what everyone begins to feel in Roman Polanski’s film Carnage, a shrill and jumbled adaptation of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s popular one-room play God of Carnage. Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz play two affluent Brooklyn couples trying, and failing, to resolve a dispute between their young sons – one’s gone and hit the other with a stick – as civilly as possible, only to get stuck in Foster and Reilly’s living room, sucked into a yammering pit of pettiness and political correctness. It’s quite literally a comedy of manners, and it’s one that never hits home.

The play works, or at least did work when I saw it in New York a couple of years ago, because the themes are big and obvious and loud and sometimes you need big and obvious and loud to fill a Broadway house. The play satirizes the courtly manners of the urban bourgeoisie – the original version takes place in Paris – and makes the bare point that we’re all just rude, base animals struggling to be civilized for each other's benefit. It’s not a terribly insightful observation, but again in a theatrical setting broad strokes can often pass for nuance. On film, however, everything feels too presentational, too loudly pointed. It plays like an unfunny middle-ager’s idea of a funny dinner party story. Or like Woody Allen, 2011 Woody Allen, hastily writing a last-minute sketch for Talk of the Town.

Meaning, there’s a kind of bewildered hostility expressed toward cell phones, toward touchy feely parenting, toward the owning of fine objects that seem important but really, when you think about it, merely represent a way of feeling control in an uncontrollable world, of winning in a winless society. All that creaky stuff. There’s an American Beauty level of insight here, which is to say not much.

That deceptively shallow look at white, affluent rage and ennui was hugely bolstered by fine performances, and here too at least one of the actors elevates the uninspired material. Kate Winslet, playing the uptight wife of Christoph Waltz’s hectoring lawyer, does sharp and funny work in the film, whether throwing up gooey chunks of cobbler all over her host’s fancy art books or drunkenly slumping on a couch and hurling invectives at people. She’s the only one here who really seems connected to the material in a way that goes past intellectual – the rest of the cast, particularly a woefully miscast Foster, merely shout ideas at one another. For his part, Polanski does some interesting tricks with a big, central mirror, but curiously leaves the rest of the well-appointed living room unexamined. It’s all presentation and no analysis.

The play, at least, ended on a pleasingly dark and unsettling note, with a whiff of something sinister arising in the final somber moments. But the film ends abruptly on a comedy note and leaves no room for thought beyond “What a bunch of dopes these supposedly civilized people are.” There is absolutely no carnage in Carnage -- it’s a satire as bloodless as the topic it’s satirizing, and as easily forgotten as any schoolyard scrape.