Mission: Impossible III
Starring: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames, Laurence Fishburne
Mission: Impossible II opened with Tom Cruise scaling a mountain, the camera Matrixing around him as he dangled over, I don’t know, the Grand Canyon or something, defying gravity and common sense with the determined joy of a loopy movie star using Oprah’s couch as a trampoline. Okay, not that psychotic, but still, it was an over-the-top opening in which Cruise picked up the traditional mission recording and threw it right into the camera as it self-destructed in its five allotted seconds.
What does that tell you? That tells you that you’re watching a cartoon, a screwy bit of special-effects fun that shouldn’t be taken as any more serious than the fat pink bundle of cotton candy that it is.
Episode Three of the action franchise opens with a scream over a black screen as a grimly evil Philip Seymour Hoffman says, “We’ve put an explosive charge in your head.” Cruise’s agent Ethan Hunt is sweaty, dirty, bloody, groggy, and manacled to a chair. We’re already at the climax of the film, and the personal hatred between hero and villain is instantly put into boldface when Hoffman puts a gun to the head of Hunt’s wife, whimpering through duct tape in blind panic.
So, yeah, we’re not going for the straight roller-coaster here.
This time the franchise is in the hands of J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost, Felicity and, most importantly, Alias. The guy has been doing solid spy action on a TV budget for five years now, and one of the hallmarks of Alias is the human element. In the show’s first season, especially, it was pretty much Felicity with guns. So the expectation with Abrams directing was that this installment would offer what the first two films lacked: Some kind of female presence that’s really worth a damn, and a bit of depth to Tom Cruise’s character. Oh, and also that lots of people, particularly women, would be tied down in chairs and tortured. Abrams delivers on all counts, bringing out a solid and compelling action film that balances entirely on the emotional vulnerability of its star, the combination that Die Hard so brilliantly nailed. (And along the way he tortures Cruise, Hoffman and two women in chairs. Whatever gets you through the night, J.J.)
After the incendiary opening, we jump to the start of the story: Ethan Hunt out of the field — he trains agents now rather than undertaking impossible missions himself. He’s settled down with a cover job at the Department of Transportation, and he’s celebrating his engagement to a pretty nurse who has no idea she’s marrying a hardened professional killer (Cruise’s patented batshit-crazy grin should be a tip-off, though). Called in to rescue a captured agent (Felicity star Keri Russell), the mission goes awry and Cruise commits to leading a field op to capture the bad guy, a vaguely defined arms dealer played with steely arrogance by Hoffman.
Things blow up, frequently and satisfyingly. The violence has a lot of tension, both because the camera gets in dirty with the actors, and because so often we’ve been made to feel personally invested in the problems, thanks to an emotional core too many action movies don’t bother with. With a good director and a good script, Cruise delivers fairly damned well for a pretty-boy movie star still clearing his thetans, and Abrams gets better-than-usual work from him. Hoffman is spot-on in every scene, so much so that you wish he’d been given more time and more range in which to perform. A supporting cast of impossible mission sidekicks, headed by Ving Rhames, is used very well — only Rhames’ character really has much personality, but the team jells and keeps the action and the wacky secret infiltrations moving briskly.
Keri Russell is pretty solid in her brief, actiony appearances, though the story doesn’t give her all that much screen time. The only problems in the cast are that as chief of the Impossible Mission Force, Laurence Fishburne quietly chews himself a little scenery, and Michelle Monaghan as Cruise’s betrothed is .. weird. In early happy scenes, she’s fine, but when she’s in the line of fire, facing certain death as a civilian who doesn’t have any idea what the hell is happening, she’s awfully “¦ actressy. Sultry eyes, prettily composed. It’s jarring. But then, who knows, maybe I’d be cute as a button during an apparent terrorist assault, too.
The story chugs along at breakneck speed while still sketching in those character moments that hold the action sequences together. There are a few false steps. What Cruise does for a living and whom he works for is never clearly stated ’til the end. The filmmakers just assume you saw the first two flicks. Exactly who Hoffman is, why he’s an evil arms dealer, and how that gets him invited to parties at the freakin’ Vatican … ahh, shaddup and watch the movie.
A funny foible: Cruise and Co. are in Shanghai, at night, and they have two hours to steal the McGuffin from a highly secure skyscraper. They assault the building with winches, ropes, some kind of propelled grappling hook, a couple dozen baseballs and a pitching machine. They launch the assault with just enough time to try to make their deadline. I’m thinking, dude, you couldn’t even figure out where to buy all that crap in under two hours, much less get it and make your play. Fortunately, there are few abuses of your graciously suspended disbelief, and lots of nice touches, including the most convincing use of the full-face mask disguises that are a Mission: Impossible hallmark.
Biggest failing: When the plot delivers a sudden reversal, and an explanation for heretofore unsuspected perfidy, the motivation of the bad guy in question is just “¦ dumb. There’s vague talk about the relative value of evil, and how it’s better to know the devil you know, but it’s hard to follow the dialogue over the sound of the movie’s face slamming hard into a brick wall. Fortunately, Abrams quickly resuscitates, we ‘re right where the film so provocatively started, and in the end, all is forgiven.