Mission: Impossible III

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/11/06 09:39:25

"DePalma... Woo... Abrams???"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Three is the dangerous number in franchises. It's where the audience sort of knows what to expect and starts wondering why they should watch the new one which may not be any good when they've got the ones they know they like on DVD. Producers Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner knew this going in, and sought to forestall it by making each "Mission Impossible" entry a fresh start with new co-stars, writers, directors, etc. It's a dangerous game, especially since they chose a guy with no feature experience to follow two very big names for the director's chair. Choosing a guy on his way up rather than guys whose best work may be behind them seems to work out, though, as J.J. Abrams turns in a solidly enjoyable movie.

Fans of Abrams's spy series Alias will recognize the gimmick he uses to open the movie right off: The hero in deep trouble - here, Cruise's Ethan Hunt is chained to a chair while Philip Seymour Hoffman's Owen Davian threatens a woman who clearly means a lot to him. One shocking denouement later, we jump back in time to examine how Hunt got himself into this situation: He was pulled out of the party celebrating his engagement to Julia (Michelle Monaghan), by a mission to rescue Lindsey Ferris (Keri Russell), an agent he'd trained. Accompanying him on the mission is old friend Luther Strickell (Ving Rhames), along with pilot/driver Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and infiltration specialist Zhen (Maggie Q). The mission leads to a suspected mole, an off-the-books mission, and Davian swearing revenge, all of which involve people and things being shot at and blowing up.

My biggest concern going into this was "who is J.J. Abrams, and what puts him on the same list as Brian De Palma and John Woo?" For better or worse, Abrams's predecessors made movies that could be immediately identified as theirs, but what's an Abrams movie look like? Well, kind of like an Abrams T.V. show: It starts in media res, gives its characters conflicting agendas, looks slick, includes some impressive set pieces, and introduces mysteries that he has no intention of ever resolving. The good news is that a single movie means he and co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci don't have to keep introducing complications to make things last for five years; the bad news is that they're clearly used to more time to build their characters bit by bit.

Take, for instance, Cruise's Ethan Hunt. He's a cipher, just like always. That doesn't mean Cruise does a bad job or anything, just that there's nothing terribly individual about how he gets frightened when his character's fiancée is threatened or angry when he confronts the guy who messed with two of the most important women in his life (said fiancée and his protegé). He talks about how Julia reminds him of life before being a spy and now generally trains agents rather than fieldwork, but we don't really get a sense of him being on the frontlines taking much of a psychological toll. After three movies, all we really know about Hunt is that he likes adventure vacations. It's not like we need to know more, since Cruise's actions and emotions are all credible, but it's odd to have the lead in a franchise be so generic.

Of course, Cruise gets more than everybody else. Hoffman is the villain, snobbish and sadistic. Hoffman gives him an arrogant sneer; he's used to getting his way and takes his capture as a personal affront. With every movie, Rhames's Luther sheds a little more of his geeky veneer; here he's pretty much an old friend. Maggie Q swaggers, Jonathan Rhys Myers kvetches in an inconsistent accent. Myers also looks a whole lot like Billy Crudup, playing an old friend and colleague of Hunt's that we haven't seen before; it took me a while to recognize that they were separate characters. Laurence Fishburne is their hard-ass boss; Simon Pegg is the amusing computer analyst. Michelle Monaghan is sweet and pretty; Russell is genial enough but looks a little awkward holding a gun.

Just a little, though; she's a major participant in the movie's first big action set piece after a shot of adrenaline, and the action's what puts butts in seats for this sort of blockbuster. I like how Abrams and company mix up the different kinds of action - a bit of covert ops gunplay to start out, a helicopter chase here, a fistfight with a gun just out of reach there, with the main emphasis on capers, trying to get into a secure location and out with something or someone valuable without being detected. There's two fun examples, in the Vatican and Shanghai, and along with the big action centerpiece (a motorcade on a bridge comes under aerial attack), they're detail-oriented action scenes where the audience has a pretty clear look at what's going on. No-one wants to see a heist that's hard to follow, and is it any surprise that the trailer's money shot was not part of a strobe-intensive gunfight or melee, but the perfectly clear long shot where the concussion from an exploding missile slams Hunt into the side of a car was the trailer's money shot for a reason: It makes an unambiguous impression on the audience, and that impression is "ouch".

That means it's just a bit disappointing when Cruise gets up barely shaken a moment later. That's one of just a couple things in the movie that really struck me wrong: The filmmakers establish a nice "unusual but not really impossible" environment, with mostly believable tech, Hunt actually working out physics equations before trying a jaw-dropping stunt, and a MacGuffin that seems to be kept vague for the express purpose of making people snort at its grandiosity, so when they break that for a moment it's odd. The other comes soon after, when I noticed people not acting as we'd learned they should and wondered why the characters didn't seem to notice it. Happily, those moments are more than balanced out by positives: Great location shooting, not backing down from the opening in the way I feared they would, Philip Seymour Hoffman being an arrogant, evil, and calm villain. And, of course, Tom Cruise's stuntman being smacked into a car.

"Mission: Impossible III" is a good time. As intended, it's a different experience from the first two, and comparing it to them probably says more about one's spy-movie preferences than the individual execution. "M:I 3" executes well - and it's worth watching to see where both Abrams and the series go next.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.