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Mission: Impossible III

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/06/06 18:27:25

"Third time's the charm."
5 stars (Awesome)

There is a moment late in “Mission: Impossible III” when one character asks Ethan Hunt, the intrepid secret agent played once again by Tom Cruise, what his agency’s initials mean. “IMF,” as we already know, stands for “Impossible Missions Force.” The name gets a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding laugh from the character.

I liked this moment, not only because it’s a funny moment, a nice breather after yet another immensely intense action sequence, but because it helps describe how the film struggles to fit this gloriously silly spy-adventure premise into our own world. A name for such an agency is pretty ridiculous, yes, and they do some very outlandish things, no doubt about that. But J.J. Abrams, the director and co-writer of the film, just straight up admits it, then looks to plant this action silliness squarely into reality, thus giving the story some emotional heft.

And not just in the key plot, but in smaller, almost throwaway moments. Consider a massive action sequence set on the Chesapeake Bay bridge. Missiles are leaving craters in the pavement; bullets are flying from all directions. We have seen such scenes in action films before, but how many of those films have stopped to remind us of the innocent bystander? A bullet from a helicopter pegs a driver, and our heroes must now find a way not only to ward off their attackers, but rescue civilians as well. Here, we get a sense of citizens not set up to be faceless cannon fodder or generic victims in some mass obliteration. We feel their individuality. We tense up - someone’s really going to get hurt here. The curious thing about this sequence is how Abrams gets this across without forcing the point. He gives us civilian victims, but only as part of a greater, expanding chaos.

Chaos is the key factor in Abrams’ film, which packs so much activity into a compact two hours, and yet, when you take a step back, you realize that the plot is surprisingly simple. Hunt, now resigned from field work and serving as an IMF trainer, is about to be married to the lovely Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Work comes calling, though, and soon Hunt and his team (co-stars for this outing include Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q, and, in a return engagement, Ving Rhames) are sent to Berlin to rescue a young agent (Keri Russell) who’s been kidnapped by a villainous arms dealer (Philip Seymour Hoffman). There is some globetrotting involved, with trips to Vatican City and Shanghai tossed in for good measure, as is the obligatory doublecrossing and switcheroos, and the whole thing hinges on a MacGuffin codenamed “the Rabbit’s Foot.”

That’s all you need to know, although, really, that’s all there is. What drives this chapter of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise is the hectic blur of action chaos. Abrams and his co-writers, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (both brought over from Abrams’ staff on TV’s “Alias”), turn their story into a frenzy of stunt work, gunplay, and fight scenes. Even when the story does slow down, there’s an intensity at work that keeps everything moving forward. Pushing this idea forward is a beat-the-clock component to the plot that refuses to let the movie to catch its breath for more than a few seconds.

The result, then, is a series of increasingly overwhelming action scenes, each one topping the last, pushing from a helicopter chase through a windmill field to the aforementioned highway bridge shoot-out to a freakishly intense leap across skyscraper rooftops to a manic car chase and finally, the capper, a shattering fist fight between our hero and our villain. Each one could, on its own, stand as the centerpiece of any other action film - they’re all expertly crafted, producing the maximum thrill impact. (I still grit my teeth a little remembering Hunt’s slide down that rooftop, and I dazzle at the image of Tom Cruise hanging inches from the ground as he leans out his car door to take out the bad guys.)

Abrams, who until now has worked only in television, reveals just how much of a knack for visual storytelling he has. He is a perfect match for the big screen, always finding just the right way to capture a moment. His action sequences are impeccable (bonus points also go to editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, “Alias” vets who bring the chaos to life), but the same can be said for the little moments. There’s a party scene that reveals Hunt’s talent for lip reading; the information is delivered so cleverly - a close-up here, a grin there - that this one bit tells us so much about what Abrams can do with the camera.

Also of note is a bit that has Hunt putting on one of his famously ridiculous, impossibly (pardon the pun) realistic latex masks - this one of the bad guy. Abrams resorts to the simplest of camera trickery, having Cruise and Hoffman merely trade places while we’re watching the other guy. It not only plays as a nifty device, but it helps sell the absurd notion of flawless disguises, tricking the viewer into believing the unbelievable, if only for a moment. The same trick is used in reverse later on, as Ethan removes the mask. It’s equally as clever. And to think Abrams could have resorted to all kinds of digital help, yet chose to take a simpler, more elegant approach that’s more fun to watch because we can appreciate the trick as we see the cinematic sleight of hand unfold.

But back to the action, and in particular, one break-in scene. Hunt and his team must find a way to steal the Rabbit’s Foot from a highly secure lab in a Shanghai highrise. The movie goes to great lengths to show us how Hunt gets into the building - but then cuts away to a small, quiet moment between two of his teammates, interrupted by Hunt’s panicked escape. We could have seen Hunt working his way through the building, working that IMF magic once again in lifting the item. But we do not, and I admire Abrams’ choice here. A set piece is removed from the film, replaced by what becomes the lead-in to a larger set piece - the Shanghai car chase - and the story is actually better for it. We ultimately don’t need to know how he got the Rabbit’s Foot. We only need to know that he did. More importantly, the mad scramble that ensues is intensified by the sudden confusion surrounding Hunt’s escape. Here, one bit actually works to flow into the other, and the story is more complete.

It’s also amusing that although the Rabbit’s Foot plays such an important role in the storyline, it is never explained what, exactly, the Rabbit’s Foot is. This is Hitchcock’s idea of the MacGuffin stripped to its core. We don’t discover what it is because we don’t need to discover what it is. A less confident storyteller would have inserted some complex nonsense about its false importance. But Abrams? He’s gutsy enough to tell us straight up that the Rabbit’s Foot is merely a plot device, nothing more. It’s what gets our hero through the various stages of the plot, eventually winding up confronting the villain one last time. That’s all the Rabbit’s Foot is. Bold move, Mr. Abrams. I like it.

But do not assume that “Mission: Impossible III” is nothing but a string of vacuous adventure. There is a heart here, not only in the relationship between Ethan and Julie (with its typical “can a spy have a relationship?” dialogue), but in the sheer weight of the job. For all his infamous public insanity of late, Cruise still manages to turn in a solid performance here, one that drives the film. Hunt is the one who must watch as teammates get killed (or worse: betray him), and he is the one who now must balance a healthy relationship outside the service with a life of action that will threaten his fiancée. Everything he does here, in the end, is to protect his Julie, and Cruise conveys this with the same bitter rage that he displayed in the previous two films, only heightened to darker, more powerful extents.

Stealing the show, however, is Hoffman, fresh off his Oscar win for “Capote” and obviously enjoying all the scenery chewing. Hoffman’s arms dealer (even the name - Owen Davian - is deliciously over-the-top) is a cold, calculating egoist, and his dialogue drips with a seething viciousness that helps turn him into one of the most memorable of recent screen villains. Hoffman overplays it by not overplaying it, if that makes sense; he understands the ludicrousness of it all and lets that aspect of his character sell itself. He never underlines his villainy. He’s merely a quietly sinister man whose job is to be a threat, and Hoffman becomes both dangerously chilling and enjoyably nutty in the role.

Seeing Hoffman in such a role is a reminder of how intelligent the film is - and, more importantly, how it assumes an intelligence on the part of the viewer. I’m struck by a toss-off line of dialogue, with Laurence Fishbourne (playing the IMF chief) tagging an Invisible Man reference with “Wells, not Ellison.” Again, it comes back to confidence: a lesser storyteller would stop to explain the joke, or perhaps ditch it out of a fear that some audience members might not understand, but Abrams and his team trust the material and the audience, knowing that those who should stay with the script will make it through with no problems.

In fact, this is an action movie that relishes good writing. We get solid work right from the start, with an opening scene featuring Hoffman and Cruise in a battle of wits of sorts, Hoffman getting so much energy out of simply counting to ten. It’s a tightly constructed scene, obviously reworked and reworked until everything flows with the most delicate precision. And there are dozens of scenes that follow that are just as good. The word is as important as the kinetics. It’s a movie where you can truly relish every scene. (But don’t worry - the script isn’t all awkward one-liners and faux-cerebral dialogue that sounds too “written” for its own good. The dialogue here, however far-fetched, comes off as natural and inviting.)

So we know it’s thrilling and smart. Is it fun? You bet. For all its grittiness and danger and suspense, there’s a light side, too. Abrams remembers to slip some friendlier material into the mix, most notably with Simon Pegg popping up now and then as a jittery techie (obviously modeled after Kevin Weisman’s character on “Alias”) who suggests the Rabbit’s Foot could just be “a really, really expensive bunny appendage.”

Put it all together, and not only is “Mission: Impossible III” better than its (vastly underrated, expertly crafted) predecessors, but it could very well hold up as the best action picture to come along in at least ten years. This is not a movie to be dismissed as a mere sequel. Instead, it is something much, much more. Abrams proves himself to be the next great filmmaker, Cruise proves himself to remain a tremendous screen presence, and the series proves itself to be far from fizzling out. This third chapter is a brilliant spy-thriller experience, and everything we hope our popcorn movies could be.

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