The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, May 06, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Mission: Impossible III

Mission: Impossible III
: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci & J.J. Abrams, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller
Producers: Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner
Stars: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames, Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Monaghan, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg, Keri Russell

While the James Bond franchise tends to take on the character of whomever is wearing the lead character’s tux, and can thus sustain a familiar tone for as much as a decade, rival franchise Mission: Impossible (steered by its producer/star Tom Cruise) distinguishes itself by shedding its skin for a new guise with every single episode. If the first was a throwback to Cold War paranoia enlivened by Brian DePalma’s cinematic penchant for stealing only from the best, and the second was an absurdly-operatic (yet quite watchable) romantic blowout that marked the moment John Woo officially jumped the shark, this third edition chameleonically takes on the character of co-writer/director J.J. Abrams, who’s been handed quite a bauble for his big-screen debut.

As with his hit series Alias, we have a progression of high-stakes infiltrations during which the perpetrators wax about their complex emotional entanglements, separated by shocking plot twists and realignments of loyalty. And as with Lost, whose stunt-packed two-hour pilot provided his bridge to the big screen, we have action scenes which show imaginative staging and an appreciation for the ability of modern visual effects to seamlessly depict preposterous feats without tricky editing.

The rest is stripped away as dead weight; unlike its predecessors the movie never even cares to explain what great prize is worth all this computer-hacking, voice-pattern-recording, wall-climbing slinking-about business. It is known only as “The Rabbit’s Foot”, and it looks ominous enough to serve as a fine McGuffin. Those unfamiliar with the wily ways of the McGuffin, read here and enjoy. This serves the movie by eliminating pretense, but also detracts because it only emotionally compels to the extent that the actors can cram life into the tiny spaces provided, and only excites from the ingenuity of its craftsman, which is considerable though not enough for the whole ride. For better or worse, you watch this movie for the kinetics.

Full review behind the jump.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise), super-agent of the IMF (its stands for “Impossible Missions Force”), has removed himself from active field duty and has found a sweet and caring lady doctor (Michelle Monaghan) to settle down with. He tells her he studies traffic patterns for the Department of Transportation, which makes sudden trips and injuries difficult to explain. He’s sucked back into the spy game when a young protégé (Keri Russell) is captured while trying to get close to a sinister arms dealer named Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

This summer tentpole payday is a long-time coming for recent Oscar-winner Hoffman, and he creates for us a villain of sociopathic confidence – watch his face as his life is threatened at very high altitude; he’s less frightened than fascinated by the novelty of the moment, and delighted by the new revenge he’ll earn by this slight. Hoffman stands proudly in the Pantheon of scene-stealing villains with this role.

No less essential is Ving Rhames as computer whiz Luther Strickel, who has always provided both tech support and an angle of human concern to the series. While Hunt can too easily turn into a gun-toting human pinball once the mission gets under way, Luther is always there to channel the audience’s mood.

The strain of a man of action leading a double life, of believing he can leave it at the office and marry someone without them ever knowing the truth, is more familiar than the movie would like it to be. The Ethan Hunt we’ve known so far, as branded by Cruise’s cocky overachiever screen persona, holds no interest for us getting beers from the fridge at some house party. He practically disappears in a puff of vapor with no alarm to bypass or hostage to charge in and rescue. That he might yearn for the life he imagined he had before IMF never comes off as more than a nod to dramatic convention. He’s just too at home plotting entry points and hair-raising base jumps. He’s not even great shakes at finding out the truth behind a conspiracy; he’s better at just barnstorming in to whatever obstacle course is set for him, and hoping someone will blab something to him in the process and it will all come out in the wash.

So the big set pieces, which are many but not too many, allow the movie to reach full flower. When Tom Cruise, biggest movie star on Earth, scales the surrounding wall of Vatican City and strips off his gear to reveal, ta daaaa!!, a priest’s robes, it’s positively droll. Fans of Shaun of the Dead will appreciate a small but key role played by Shaun himself, Simon Pegg. There are frequent little delights like this, and bigger ones, too; I like one assault on a building that uses a best-of-both-worlds approach combining elements of both the one-man stealth job and an all-out gun-blazer. And Abrams and company make the rather bold move of not even showing one particular piece of sneak-thieving. I think they reasoned that a) we already knew how it had to end for the story to progress, and b) they didn’t need five more minutes of movie devoted to running down corridors shooting security guards, and so they stay outside where the more interesting emotion of the moment lies.

When you try to settle accounts the story makes a kind of sense; the motives aren’t particularly obtuse, though calculating the likelihood of such tactics achieving success by prior design could cause headaches. Tom sprints and smirks and smolders as the moment demands, although he’s a little lined to still be playing the kid with the chip on his shoulder in 2006.

Despite its weaknesses Mission: Impossible III works on its own terms, thanks in large part to the breadth of its supporting cast and the fresh eye behind the lens. Assembling a team like this must reflect back on the producer, and so for having the malleability to essentially reinvent his most valuable franchise for the times even as he stays the same in the center of it, Tom Cruise the producer deserves credit. For Tom Cruise the star, though, in roles like this, the clock is ticking.


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