The central idea behind Mission: Impossible III is an admirable one: take the spy-hero from a successful, decade-old movie franchise and dig into his character-find the human beneath the action figure. While a good idea and one that had the potential to breathe life into a franchise that hadn't been on the big screen in six years, the new personal insight into the character never quite takes off and achieves the level of emotional involvement obviously intended.
The first two Mission: Impossible movies were both well-mounted displays of their respective director's virtuoso talents (Brian De Palma's penchant for insanely intricate scenarios played out in silence and John Woo's penchant for insanely operatic slow-motion balletics, respectively), but in neither film did we know much about the hero, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). The director this time around is J.J. Abrams, at the time best known as the creator of the television series Lost and Alias, the latter of which seems to have influenced much of M:i:III's look and feel (there is a conference room that looks just like the SD-6 debriefing room and a squirrelly tech genius played by Shaun of the Dead's Simon Pegg who tends to talk too much just like Kevin Weisman's Marshall). However, what M:i:III and Alias have most in common is Abrams' fascination with the interconnections between the world of international espionage and familial tensions-specifically, how spies must keep their secrets even from those they most dearly love and how those loved ones are always potential targets to be used against them.
Abrams makes the bold decision to open the movie in medias res, with Hunt handcuffed to a chair and the villain, a ruthless arms dealer named Owen Davian (played with truly sinister relish by recent Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman), holding a gun to the head of his new wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). This allows Abrams to immediately establish M:i:III as being fundamentally different from its predecessors, and it also gives Cruise the opportunity to engage in some of the clenched-jaw intensity that is his specialty. More so than any other emotion, Cruise excels at conveying single-minded force of conviction; his face is perfectly designed to show the intersection of concentration and anger.
The story then skips back to show us how they got there, opening with an engagement party that is meant to show Ethan's warm, human side (he's making small talk with people who are not spies or villains!), but instead feels slightly awkward because it's like the projectionist accidentally spliced in a reel from Jerry Maguire (1996). Having seen the sophisticated, single-minded, calculating Ethan in the first two movies, this ber-suburban domestication just doesn't quite work.
The domestication doesn't last long, though, as Ethan is soon back in the field, first rescuing a fellow agent (Keri Russell) who has been captured in Berlin, and then he's off to the Vatican to nab Hoffman's ruthless arms dealer. Ethan is aided by a team composed of returning tech wizard Luther Strickell (Ving Rhames) and two new faces played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q. The capture of Davian is a success, but almost as soon as they have him, he is snatched back in a daring aerial assault on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge that is the movie's action highpoint. Davian doesn't waste any time kidnapping Julia and using her life as leverage to get Ethan to help him retrieve something known as "the rabbit's foot," a lethal MacGuffin in a glass case, the details of which are completely beside the point.
There are certainly some strong points in M:i:III. Cruise does what he does best, and it's hard to fault his performance as anything other than exactly what we would expect. Hoffman, however, is the movie's standout, as he conveys a sense of primordial ruthlessness that is too often lacking in big-budget movie villainy; when he tells Ethan than he's going to find his girlfriend and hurther, his flat words carry a truly scary conviction. Moving from the small screen to the big screen for the first time, Abrams shows himself to be a capable director with some clever ideas for how to stage action; he seems particularly fond of closeness and compressing space, which is most likely a holdover from his work in TV.
Yet, the ultimate failure of the movie to generate the kind of emotional tension for which it is clearly striving may be a case of an awkward intersection between art and life, with the revelations about and domestication of Ethan Hunt reflecting the then-recent revelations about and domestication of Tom Cruise in the public eye. Once an intensely private man whose star persona was enhanced by the limited public knowledge of his personal life, Cruise had spent the previous year opening up in ways that made most people intensely uncomfortable, whether it be jumping on Oprah's couch and declaring his love for Katie Holmes or lecturing Matt Lauer about psychiatry.
It is unavoidable that the public's feelings about a star actor at any given time will color their reception of his latest movie, and to suggest otherwise is to deny the connection between movies and the social context in which they're produced. If Mission: Impossible III was less of a hit than Paramount was expecting, it could well be because it was a reaction to Cruise, not the movie. In the case of both Cruise and Ethan Hunt, it may simply be the case that, at least in terms of personal information, less is definitely more.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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