Absurdist, steroid-injected action thrillers like Mission: Impossible 4 — Ghost Protocol are over. They’re obviously thriving commercially as we speak, but they have nowhere to go except in the use of more powerful steroids and more CG ridiculum, and that’s a dead end. There’s only one kind of thriller that can work these days — i.e., the human-scale, back-to-basics-and-believability model found in Steven Soderbergh‘s Haywire and Nicholas Winding Refn‘s Drive.

Action nerds born in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s will disagree, of course, but they’re running around with a kind of ComicCon myopia, which amounts to a kind of poison in their veins. They sincerely believe that action films aren’t worthy of consideration or patronage unless the thrills and spills in a just-opened film vigorously competes with (or more preferably tops) the last flamboyantly unrealistic action film. It has to dismiss if not piss on physical law and be emphatically cartoony and hard-drivey to a fare-thee-well. There is no way out of this morass.

So the nihilistic strain in this Brad Bird-Tom Cruise film can’t be ignored or waved away. And yet (a) I loved the boxy IMAX footage, particularly in the early stages, (b) the sequence with Cruise climbing up the glass exterior of that Dubai skyscraper is highly exciting, despite intense and relentless efforts to convince the audience that what you’re seeing is ludicrous; (c) the older Cruise gets (he’s nearly 50), the more interesting his face becomes, especially due to the fact that his nose has gotten bigger and beakier; and (d) Jeremy Renner gives the best performance.