Mission: Impossible III
Despite the big budget, J.J. Abrams delivers a more intimate 'Mission'
Abrams and co-writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have even given "M:I:III" an "Alias" plot structure. The film begins nearly three-fourths of the way in with nefarious baddie Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) -- a "black market trafficker" of the most nebulous sort -- torturing Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his obvious love interest Julia (Michelle Monaghan) to find out the location of a device called the Rabbit's Foot. Whoosh. Flash back to our story's happier beginning, an engagement party for Ethan and Julia, complete with guest turns by television and Abrams favorites like Greg Grunberg and Tracy Middendorf. Ethan's retired from active duty, but he's still training IMF agents, though Julia thinks he works a desk job at the Department of Transportation. Just when Ethan thinks he's out, just when he's ready to pursue life as a near-civilian, he's pulled back in by colleague Musgrave (Billy Crudup) to go rescue Lindsey Farris (Keri "Felicity" Russell), an agent investigating Davian. In no time, Hunt has rounded up his team, including Luther (Ving Rhames), Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen (Maggie Q). We're only 15 minutes and it's off to Berlin for the first of a seemingly endless series of missions surrounding Davian, the Rabbit's Foot and Ethan's personal demons.
Following in the footsteps of the first two "M:I" films, this sequel wastes little time on plot plausibility or filling in narrative gaps. Like so many Rimbaldi artifact and clues, the Rabbit's Foot is a device of minimal import, but potentially infinite power. But the tension never really builds around the Macguffin plot catalyst, nor around Agent Farris. Like the early, effective, seasons of "Alias," it's about the difficulties inherent in living a double life when one of those lives is always in jeopardy. So the movie isn't about Ethan battling the bad guys -- Hoffman is fantastic, but only fleetingly involved. It's about a man who wants to be out of danger with the woman he loves and instead finds himself constantly putting everything at risk. It's a metaphor for all attempts to balance business and personal lives, but it's particularly germane giving Cruise's own status and battles with the media and the public.
Cruise gives the kind of performance he usually does in movies like this -- simple, unfailingly intense and physically committed. Even audiences who are bored or disgusted with Cruise's behavior over the past year should be able to just accept him as Hunt. With Monaghan, he has a pleasant romantic foil, as the rising young actress is so effortlessly sexy and natural that she takes the edge off of Cruise's vein-popping forcefulness. Cruise is also aided by the depth of his IMF teammates, as the filmmakers have committed to reinstating some of the group dynamic from the original "M:I" series that was lost in making the past two films into Cruise vehicles. For the first time, Hunt is surrounded by professionals with specific jobs and Rhames, Q and Meyers all get some good scenes, as does Laurence Fishburne, crewing on big hunks of colorful dialogue as an intelligence bigwig. I also hope that casting directors look at Russell's work here and realize that she's more than just Felicity.
Nothing in "M:I:III" reaches the level of DePalma's Jules Dassin-inspired dangling break-in scene from the original, but Abrams has staged several strong set-pieces, including a witting piece of identity swapping at the Vatican and a daring dive from a Shanghai skyscraper. Abrams shoots an unnerving percentage of the film in tight close-ups and hand-held shots, which contributes to the intimacy of a plot that aims to be character-driven, but it takes away from the grandeur that viewers expect from a summer action movie. Because he does such a poor job of establishing the terrain, certain scenes that should have been obvious favorites -- a helicopter chase through a field of windmills, for example -- are confusing and forgettable. There are also times where Abrams over-relies on Michael Giacchino's punchy score, using the music to push the storytelling rather than as a compliment.
"Mission: Impossible III" is an odd big summer popcorn film that feels small. Abrams may blow up bridges and expensive sports cars, but he values the emotional stakes even higher. As a result, viewers expecting a Michael Bay or Wolfgang Petersen-style event picture may be disappointed to find themselves watching characters relate. Me, I liked the change of pace.