It's interesting to note that all three "Mission: Impossible" entries have been stylistically very different pictures. The change in filmmakers assuredly has something to do with this, helping to keep the series mostly fresh from one movie to the next. 1996's "Mission: Impossible," directed by Brian De Palma, was a classy slow-burnertechnically strong but an emotionally antiseptic and needlessly complicated exercise that amounted to little. By comparison, 2000's "Mission: Impossible II
"the best of the series so farraised the stakes, the action and the romance while paying tribute to director John Woo's martial arts background.
"Mission: Impossible III," under the feature helming debut of ace television series creator J.J. Abrams ("Lost"), falls smack dab in between its predecessors. On the one hand, its story is weak and occasionally garbled, putting so much effort into keeping secrets and key information from the audience that it is difficult to get caught up in how things are going to pan out. Luckily, Abrams makes up for a lot of the deficiencies in his script, co-written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (2005's "The Island
"), with a slam-bang, go-for-broke pace that scarcely stops long enough for one to question the film's logic. It's only after the end credits have rolled that you come to find not as much substance as what initially seemed to meet the eye.
Happily engaged to be married to the lovely Julia (Michelle Monaghan), IMF leader Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has seriously begun to consider leaving his spy days behind. That all changes, at least temporarily, when he is called back into action to rescue kidnapped agent Lindsey Ferris (Keri Russell), who has been implanted with a chip in her brain that could explode at any minute. Ethan's mission eventually leads him to black market arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a ruthless psychopath out to snatch a top-secret weapon code-named the "Rabbit's Foot" and blackmail Ethan into retrieving it for him. If Ethan doesn't succeed within the allotted forty-eight hours, Julia will die.
"Mission: Impossible III" has an attention-grabbing prologuea fast-forward to the climax as Owen threatens Julia's life at gunpoint while a strapped-down Ethan pleads for mercyand wastes little time in jumping right into a successive stream of high-octane action sequences. As an unadulterated thrill ride, the film races past the previous movies in the series to concoct a number of self-contained adrenaline rushes. Befitting any second sequel, the scope is grander and the action is of a more epic scale, with superbly realized and veritably exciting scenes set on battling helicopters, on a bridge, in an airplane, over the side of a skyscraper and even at the Vatican.
Eventually, a story must be told in between the gunfire, explosions and death-defying stunts, and that is where things sink below the level of "Mission: Impossible II
." Like the cryptic original, it becomes a chore trying to piece together the what's, how's and why's of the villains' motivations. The "Rabbit's Foot" Owen Davian wants so badly, for example, feels like a lazy plot device that doesn't pay off; even at the end, the viewer (and Ethan) is unsure of what it is. In the first sequel, the threat was a fast-acting fatal virus, plain and simple, and further tension was milked from knowing all along the insurmountable odds that Ethan was up against. That isn't the case here, where the main flourishes of suspense come not from the story, but from the skill of the set-pieces.
Also missing this time is a indelible female lead for Tom Cruise (2005's "War of the Worlds
") to play off of. Sure, there is Michelle Monaghan (2005's "North Country
"), as threatened fiancee Julia, and also Keri Russell (2005's "The Upside of Anger
") and Maggie Q (2001's "Rush Hour 2
") in smaller agent roles, but none of them are brought to life and made into a multi-layered, dynamic individual like Thandie Newton's Nyah was. It is disappointing that Nyah, who blissfully walked off into the sunset with Ethan at the conclusion of the last film, isn't even made mention of. Her absence is definitely felt.
Although "Mission: Impossible III" is Tom Cruise's vehicle all the way, and he brings his usual concentration, physical commitment and underlying smugness to the part, it is Philip Seymour Hoffman (2005's "Capote
") who threatens to steal the show. Watching Hoffman in his past roles, it would seem unbelievable to imagine him as capable of portraying such a coldhearted bad guyuntil one remembers just how talented and chameleon-like he is as an actor. It turns out his memorable antagonistic supporting turn in 1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley
" was only a precursor to his work as the maniacal Owen Davian. Hoffman has limited face time, and yet his every appearance is as mesmerizing as it is chilling.
"Mission: Impossible III" is a respectable, if not overwhelming, jumping-off point to the summer movie season. Amidst the expertly conceived technical creds, some other neat touches sneak through. For the first time, it is revealed how the masks are made and the voices mimicked in order to embody someone else's identity. Additionally, the cinematography by Dan Mindel (2005's "Domino
") attractively switches between grit and gloss, with special kudos to his gorgeous lensing of the Shanghai nightscape. It is on the basis of the flimsy plotting and a sappy last five minutes that ring false with neatness that "Mission: Impossible III" doesn't quite merit the accolades of John Woo's impressive effort. The film looks great, and audiences searching for nothing more than popcorn entertainment will get their money's worth. What they won't get, however, is a whole lot to think or care about during the ride.