Tom Cruise picks plots and directors for Mission: Impossible movies the way average folks select shirts or skirts. Like Maverick in Top Gun, he sees what he wants and he takes it.

To Brian De Palma for the first, he likely said, “Hey, make it a paranoid, lone-man-on-the-run story.” To John Woo for the sequel, he probably said, “Hey, make it one of those slow-motion, two-gun, symbolic dove things you always do.” And, for Mission: Impossible 3, he has seemingly told co-writer and director JJ Abrams, “Hey, make Alias as a movie, only with a bigger budget. Just junk the monk who might have prophesized the modern end of the world back in the 15th century.”

Milo Rambaldi and his devices are the only things from Abrams’ TV show that he hasn’t shoehorned for Cruise — mid-mission conversations about life at home, Michael Giacchino’s fluttering cello-and-bongo score, a charming-nerdy tech geek, explosive charges in people’s heads (nice synergy, given its plot point on Alias last week), flash-forward storytelling (without which Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain wouldn’t appear until the second act), even the end of the world.

What Abrams apes most from Alias is what this film series, entertaining as it has been and is here, could have used more of from the start — a true team dynamic, actual character development, intentional humor and action that feels urgent rather than obligatory. (A movie can only be so good when written around action scenes a director has in his head — ahem, Mission: Impossible 2.) It’s an exciting, if not-at-all innovative, tale of eye-popping action in the name of actual human pursuits.

A bad spray-on tan isn’t the only thing Cruise’s super-spy Ethan Hunt has left behind six years after we last saw him. His womanizing has self-destructed, as he’s now engaged to the lovely Julia (Michelle Monaghan). In her, the now world-weary Ethan sees a life before the spy games, which he’s now teaching to others rather than playing out in the field.

But when a protégé (Keri Russell, an Abrams imprint from past show Felicity) goes missing, he must rescue her from the clutches of the evil, easily perturbed arms dealer Owen Davian (Hoffman). Here, Abrams’ directs his script’s 50-foot ideas like they’re to be shown on 50-inch TVs. A helicopter chase through a field of windmills suffers from choppy editing and too-tight close-ups.

After the failed rescue, Ethan goes off the books and around his superiors (Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne) to nab Davian and Davian’s quarry, a bio-weapon called the Rabbit’s Foot.

Once the movie becomes a battle of wills between two hardcore guys dishing out punishment to one another, it really takes off. The surprise isn’t Owen targeting Julia, but what Ethan does to Owen on an airplane to draw his wrath and Ethan’s reliance on the instincts, actions and resolve of his assembled team (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg and returnee Ving Rhames).

They’re up against a definitive guy who knows, and calls, every one of Ethan’s bluffs. Davian has the tones to make a 10-count sound like the death sentence it is and the stones to send a white limo to a drop point where a frantic Ethan waits. There’s no better actor than Hoffman to give life to a bad, bad man more interested in mental torture, pain and anguish than physical conflicts.

The chaos he creates also works better with Abrams’ limited feature-directing abilities. An attack by commando teams and a drone plane on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is the memorable standout here, and Abrams’ shaking camera goes on to mimic the story’s frenzy and uncertainty from there.

Abrams also puts clever spins on usual tropes like the mask technology, bizarrely includes Sister Sledge on the soundtrack at one point and sprints full-bore toward the gallows for finale humor. In fact, Abrams and the movie run almost as fast as Cruise does in one unbroken take of motivated motoring. Finally, he’s found a writer and director to put him, and the franchise, through its paces.