Mission: Impossible III

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/04/06 23:46:01

"A mildly disappointing summer blockbuster? That's unpossible!"
3 stars (Just Average)

When Brian De Palma’s film version of “Mission: Impossible” was released in 1996, it told such an impenetrable tale of twists, turns and double-crosses that nearly everyone who saw (and probably many of those who worked on it) walked away from it more or less confused about the details of what they had just seen. Perhaps working under the belief that a story not understood is just as viable as a story not previously told, the makers of the long-awaited (at least by tentpole-hungry Paramount) sequel “Mission: Impossible III” have decided virtually reuse that very same plot, only this time telling it in a dumbed-down version that even the slowest multiplex rats will be able to grasp. The problem is that the story, stripped to its essentials, isn’t really that impressive and when you also remove the visual flash and narrative tricks that De Palma brought to the proceedings, you are left with a film that is epic on the outside–full of explosions, chases and a gleaming-toothed super-stud saving the day every five minutes–but kind of puny in the center.

Once again, Tom Cruise plays all-American super-agent Ethan Hunt and as the film opens, he has left the field in order to train new agents for their own future impossible missions. On the home front, he is engaged to marry Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a sweet young lass who is under the impression that he works for the DMV. At their engagement party, Ethan is contacted by IMF superior Musgrave (Billy Crudup) with an emergency: while tracking down mysterious global baddie Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Lindsay (Keri Russell), a rookie agent under Ethan’s tutelage, has been taken prisoner. Ethan and his team–pilot Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), leggy babe Zhen (Maggie Q) and continuity-providing returning character Luther (Ving Rhames)–swoop in and rescue her in the ta-da nick of time. However, something goes wrong, a prominently-billed cast member dies much sooner than you’d expect and Ethan is being looked at with suspicion by menacing IMF head Brassel (Laurence Fishburne).

Before long, the team gets a lead that Davian is going to be selling off some presumably lethal item–code-named “Rabbit’s Foot”–at a gathering in the highly impenetrable Vatican City and sneaks off without authorization to retrieve them. Using an array of outfits, exploding cars and those latex masks that never look like actual masks until the moment just before they get pulled off, the team manages to capture Davian but while returning him to the U.S., they are ambushed and Davian manages to escape. Soon after, Davian has Julia kidnapped and orders Ethan to go to Shanghai and retrieve the Rabbit’s Foot before she is also reduced to keychain-sized bits–a mission that inevitably requires more explosions, more outlandish stunts and more dramatic revelations that will come as a surprise to virtually no one who has actually been paying attention to the plot.

Although I doubt it was designed that way, the “Mission: Impossible” series has turned into a series in which a series of directors are allowed to explore their own personal quirks and obsessions within the framework of an all-but-assured commercial juggernaut. In the first film, Brian De Palma indulged in his fascinations with voyeurism, kinetic visual storytelling and unreliable narrative storytelling to intriguing effect–while not top-grade De Palma, it is a film that strangely plays better now than it did when it first came out. In the 2000 sequel, John Woo explored his favored notions of melodramatic storytelling and the thin line separating good from evil, spiced up with plenty of homages to Melville and Hitchcock. This time around, co-writer/director J.J. Abrams has chosen to create a spy thriller in which the hero’s personal story is just as convoluted and confusing as the professional one–an idea that he has been exploring for the last five years on his TV series “Alias.” On the series, this conceit has worked beautifully–especially in the first two seasons of the show–because the expanded narrative structure allowed him the chance to get deeper into the emotional psyches of his characters to such a degree that the scenes involving the personal relationships were just as exciting, if not more so, than the stuff involving Jennifer Garner kicking people in the head while wearing a variety of fetish outfits.

Here, Abrams and his co-writers, “Alias” vets Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci, try to do the same thing but they are hampered by the simple problem that the character of Ethan Hunt isn’t particularly interesting on his own. As played by Cruise, Ethan goes through the motions of being tough, tender, witty and daring but they always seem like poses instead of natural behavior–for the most part, he remains as blank and hollow as the latex masks that he finds himself donning from time to time. Therefore, when he is faced with the loss of the love of his life at the hands of the bad guys, it doesn’t really have much of an impact because we never really get a sense that it would actually mean much of anything–this is the kind of movie where the hero looks more convincing swinging from skyscrapers over Shanghai than he is at home in a clinch with the love of his life.

Beyond the central cipher, the other chief problem with the film is that instead of expanding his horizons, Abrams has essentially given us little more than an exceptionally large-scale and not-very-interesting episode of “Alias.” The action scenes are big and noisy but they lack any real kinetic excitement–making his big-screen debut, Abrams may be working on an epic scale but he still essentially has the visual eye of a TV guy who is so used to framing things for the reduced dimensions of the small screen that he doesn’t know what to do with the extra space. Also, the lack of fiscal restraint seems to have also reduced his cleverness and ingenuity. For example, there is an extended helicopter chase through a field of windmills that is filled with missile explosions and crashing choppers and it fades from the mind almost as soon as it ends–compare that to a recent “Alias” episode where a bad guy nonchalantly brought down a helicopter in such an offhand manner that it thrilled and horrified in equal measure and definitely stuck in the brain. As for the storyline, it is, as I suggested, little more than a rehash of the plot from the first film that is nowhere near as complex as it seems to think that it is. Add that on top of an uninteresting central character and an uninteresting visual approach and you have a film that almost seems made to define that old quote about a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

There are momentary pleasures to be had with “Mission: Impossible III”–Hoffman, in his first role since winning the Oscar for “Capote,” is both intriguing and menacing as the bad guy and you wish the film had found a little more time for him and Simon Pegg, the hero of “Shaun of the Dead,” is very funny in a brief bit as a nerdy tech guy who helps save the day a couple of times. I also like the witty and economical way that Abrams handles the Rabbit’s Foot–both is the way it is retrieved and what it is supposed to do–in a way that cleverly subverts the expectations of blockbuster audiences. If the film had more moments like this, where wit and ingenuity was given precedence over having Tom Cruise jump off yet another building ahead of yet another fireball, “Mission: Impossible III” might have really been something interesting. As it is, the film is a well-crafted machine that provides you with a lot of surface sensation while it is rolling but nothing of substance to hold onto once the end credits begin to roll.

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