by Mel Valentin
Directed by J.J. Abrams ("Lost," "Alias," "Felicity"), "Mission: Impossible III" is about as dark, intense, and brooding a Hollywood blockbuster as we're likely to see this summer. Abrams and his co-screenwriters, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci ("The Legend of Zorro," "The Island," "Alias"), have drawn their inspiration from Ian Fleming's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," James Cameron's "True Lies," Robert Ludlum's "Bourne" book series, but it's J.J. Abrams' "Alias," that serves as template for "Mission: Impossible III." And what a template it is. Giving "Mission: Impossible III" a smaller, more personal scope, Abrams delivers the rarest of Hollywood megapictures, a film where the characters count more than effects or well-choreographed action set pieces.Mission: Impossible III opens not in media res, but near the end, with super-secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) tied up and at the mercy of the sociopathic villain, Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an arms dealer/black marketer who wants something Ethan has or had, the "Rabbit's Foot." As Davian completes his countdown from ten to one (hint: there's a third person in the room), Mission: Impossible III unwinds, rewinds to a more idyllic moment in Hunt's life: his engagement party to Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Julia is unaware of Ethan's double life, believing that Ethan works for the federal department of transportation. Ethan still works for the IMF (Impossible Mission Force), but he's semi-retired. He's traded in fieldwork for the more stable life of an IMF instructor.
"The Mr. Intensity of the Year Award goes to...Tom Cruise."
Of course, that doesn't last long. Ethan gets the call from his former handler, John Musgrave (Billy Crudup), who informs him that Ethan's former student, Lindsey (Keri Russell), has disappeared in Berlin, Germany, presumably kidnapped by Davian. Ethan's emotional connection to his former student, plus his desire to get back into the game, guarantees he'll step up and try to rescue Lindsay. In typical IMF fashion, Ethan assembles his team of undercover professionals, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), the lone holdover from Hunt’s previous adventures, Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the designated driver, and Zhen (Maggie Q), the only woman on the team.
Ethan and his team get to Berlin, but the rescue doesn't go off as planned, which in turn, draws Ethan and his team into an attempt to uncover Davian's latest billion-dollar business deal (in Vatican City, no less), and grab Davian from his minders, and bring him back to IMF headquarters for debriefing. Meanwhile, an uptight bureaucrat, Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), causes more than a few complications. That too doesn't go as plan, forcing Ethan to go on the run from Virginia to Shanghai, where ultimately he, Davian, and one or two other antagonists will square off. The stakes are higher, though, than whether Ethan will stop Davian's plan to sell a top-secret weapon to a Middle East buyer. This time, it's personal, or rather the personal and the professional mix to the degree that they've become indistinguishable.
Story wise, Mission: Impossible III falls squarely into the spy action/thriller genre first popularized with the appearance of Ian Fleming's masterspy, James Bond, in the early 1960s. An agent leading a double, super-secret life, a sociopathic villain, globetrotting between colorful, picture-postcard destinations, a MacGuffin (Alfred Hitchcock's term for the object of desire that drives a plot forward), romance, high-energy, well-crafted action scenes, relentless pacing, sharpened dramatic conflict, and a deadline-driven storyline. Mission: Impossible III goes darker, though, with a central character driven by a desire for revenge, then ups those stakes by giving Ethan a highly personal, emotional interest in defeating Davian.
Cruise's eccentric public behavior and the subsequent public backlash won't matter thirty seconds into Mission: Impossible III. Borrowing an opening gambit common to television (the pre-commercial "teaser"), Abrams kick starts Mission: Impossible III at the point of highest tension and the sharpest dramatic conflict. While some viewers are likely to react with a mixture of glee to Cruise's defeated posture, that glee will change quickly to emotional connection and concern. Everything that follows (or rather everything that precedes that opening scene) will take us back to that scene. And we end up hoping against hope that we've just seen or what we think we've just seen hasn't actually happened.
Performance wise, Tom Cruise is in Mr. Intensity mode from the opening scene to the last, with the exception of Ethan's romantic scenes with Julia. He's never less than watchable, even when he overemphatically allows one eye to grow heavy with tears (while the other remains relatively dry). As Davian, Philip Seymour Hoffman brings the gravitas that only an Academy Award winning actor can bring to an underwritten part. For whatever reason (pacing, Cruise’s ego), Hoffman isn't on screen enough. While the other actors acquit themselves well, especially Michelle Monaghan as Hunt's love interest and newcomer Maggie Q (less for her performance and more for a eye-catching red dress she wears to a high-profile event at the Vatican), they're given few character-defining "moments." Mission: Impossible III is obviously Cruise's show (he also co-produced) and no one was going to out-emote Cruise (and no one does).
Action wise, Abrams certainly doesn't show his TV roots when it comes to the action set pieces, all of them expansively, cleanly filmed. Sure, the death-defying action scenes are augmented by CGI, but "bad" (e.g., noticeable) CGI shows up in only one scene set in nighttime Shanghai. Abrams and his co-screenwriters also smartly slip in double jeopardy into several action sequences (e.g., trying to save the life of a fallen comrade in mid-helicopter chase). For tension and suspense, you can't get better than layering chase scenes with a second, equally important goal or danger (made all the harder by the need to avoid obstacles and opponents at a rapid clip).Ultimately, Tom Cruise's public antics over the last year might stop some viewers from giving "Mission: Impossible III" a chance at their local multiplex. Those that do, however, will be in for the rare "event" film that delivers on all its promises, from the visceral to the emotional. As for Abrams, his post-"Lost" work seems to be in film not television. And yes, that's a good thing.
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originally posted: 05/04/06 15:19:25