Usually, when an action star agrees to star in a “fourth film in a trilogy,” the decision reeks of desperation. It’s a kind of acknowledgement by the actor that his star has reached its apogee, that audiences wanna see him in one thing and one thing only. By the time Bruce Willis signed on for Die Hard IV, he hadn’t had a bona fide star-driven hit since The Sixth Sense; Sly Stallone quickly settled into a routine of Rocky-Rambo movies, and hasn’t really tried to break the pattern since; Vin Diesel and Paul Walker both skipped a Fast-Furious movie to pretend some confidence in their starpower, but they quickly returned; even Harrison Ford hadn’t seen a name-above-the-title victory since 2000’s What Lies Beneath when he finally did Indy 4.

So when Tom Cruise, now pushing 50, followed M:I3 with duds like Lions for Lambs and Knight & Day, his decision to sign on to do Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, reeked of last-ditch career move. And honestly, for about the first 20 minutes, as Cruise sucks in his gut and throws back his shoulders to look like the unrelenting superspy Ethan Hunt, it feels that way. But then the movie just gets good.

Not good as in artsy-smartsy good — far from it. In fact, M:I 4 may be the most ridiculous piece of nonsense I have even not been able to take my eyes off of. Ethan and Co. struggle to cross a street in Moscow without being shot or tracked down, but by Act 2, they have gotten to Dubai in under 36 hours, complete with custom tailored Tom Ford suits and impeccable manicures without so much as an attempt to explain the logistics of such a tremendous feat.

And that’s fine with me. If you have time to think about M:I 4, you have missed the point of it entirely. The plot, as complicated as it is, is also incredibly easy to follow. Ethan’s a good guy, the Russians (especially the one who wants to start a nuclear war) are the bad guys and despite being set in two third-world countries, there’s not a villainous Arab or Muslim anywhere in sight. Ah, politically-correct political thrillers.

Popcorn entertainment like this requires pacing, style and some great effects, all of which director Brad Bird delivers. Bird has two Oscars, one for his own spy movie: The Incredibles from Pixar. No comparison? Please, Cruise’s film is at least as cartoonish as that, and has less heart, but just enough to give the characters some motivation. The sound design is ear-splitting, the vistas eye-popping, the stunts stomach-churning. It’s a adrenaline rush of an action movie … and totally unexpected, considering how unceremoniously it seems Paramount has dumped it in theaters with little build up and muddled commercials.

The M:I franchise is a rare thing: A series that seems to get better with each entry. (All four films have had different directors.) Ghost Protocol — from its sets to its editing to its international plot and stunning use of landmarks (especially the Burj Dubai Hotel, the tallest building in the world) —  feels like a missing entry in the Bond universe. I’d swap it for Quantum of Solace any day. Doing this film may have seemed like risky business for Cruise, but he shows he still has all the right moves. He keeps it up, he could remain top gun for another installment or two. That would be legend.

Three stars. Opens Friday in wide release.