Mission Impossible III represents the rarest of cinematic anomalies: The third film of a franchise is generally where we hear the first groans and wheezes of a slow death. Remember that sound Jabba the Hutt makes when Princess Leia strangles him with a chain? It’s like that, but in script form. Here then, is MI3, which somehow achieves a wholesale upgrade from its two predecessors. Those films were stylistic and handsomely made, but also loaded with empty calories. For this go-around, they decided to make Ethan Hunt an actual human being, and the payoff is huge.
In fact, MI3 marks such an abrupt change in aesthetic, I’ll go ahead and say parts one and two aren’t necessary to comprehend it. Debuting director J.J. Abrams makes this creative departure clear in the film’s opening scene: Hunt (Tom Cruise) sits, broken and bleeding, handcuffed to a chair. His wife (Michelle Monaghan) is across from him, her mouth taped and a gun pointed at the back of her head. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s villain demands some top secret tech, or else. Hunt goes through a range of tactics and emotions during the exchange: He threatens, bargains, and begs, all while tears stream down his face. It’s a raw, wrenching scene that resembles nothing from the previous the films. Finally, Mission Impossible has some dramatic heft.
From this bruising beginning, Abrams and his screenwriting cohorts (Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) flash back to a quieter moment: Ethan Hunt, justifiably worn-out from kicking so much ass in the other movies, has settled down to train the super-spies of the future. He’s also engaged to Julia, a grounded young nurse who has no idea she’s hooked up with a 007 knockoff. In True Lies fashion, she thinks he’s an office-bound dweeb who studies traffic patterns and travels for work junkets.
The film spends a fair amount of time at Ethan and Julia’s engagement party, wherein they booze and snuggle and speak softly into each other’s ears. My mind immediately went to the beef I had with True Lies: Isn’t it cruel that Ethan romances Julia without properly informing her of his dangerous reality? In the end, his occupation could either get her killed or–at the absolute minimum–reveal his expansive dishonesty. If they’re going to have a real marriage, why not trust just her from the get-go? Oh well–maybe movies like this are just to sell tubs of popcorn and Mr. Pibb and I’m overthinking it.
Whatever the case, Ethan’s domestic tranquility gets broken up when a colleague (Billy Crudup) presents him with One Last Mission. It seems that Lindsey (Keri Russell), Ethan’s favorite pupil, has been captured by Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a ruthless arms dealer and all-around supervillain. Davian desperately seeks a device called the Rabbit’s Foot, which is apparently a piece of tech that can whisk Earth back to the Stone Ages. Memo to all the mad scientists out there: If you’re working on something that could end life as we know it, be sure and come up with a better name than the Rabbit’s Foot. ‘Cause that just sounds stupid.
Naturally, Ethan leaps into action and rounds up a team of usual suspects: Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), the hacker with a Barry White baritone; Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a younger version of Ethan, albeit with a Scottish accent; Zhen Lei (Maggie Q), a resourceful, gorgeous woman who helps this squad of models look even less conspicuous. They track Lindsey to Germany, but the rescue op goes terribly wrong. Ultimately, Ethan goes running for his life, because…let’s face it: He does that in all these movies.
I really don’t want to give a whole lot more away. Abrams and company bake a few surprises into their story, and while they won’t shock anybody who’s seen enough of these spy flicks, they do keep things from growing bland and stale. Even at 126 minutes, MI3 never stops moving.
It’s probably also not a shock to say that the Mission Impossible films derive much of their power from Cruise’s star wattage. On a personal level, you can love him or loathe him, but there’s no denying that Cruise is loaded with personality and talent. Abrams make the smart decision supply the Hunt character with humanity and motivation, and Cruise obliges with a deeply emotional performance that does much to elevate the film.
As good as Cruise is, we gotta talk about Hoffman. On paper, Davian is a boring, straightforward villain, but Hoffman still almost picks up this movie and walks off with it. He delivers some of the script’s most banal dialogue with such chilly craftsmanship that every line feels like the verbal equivalent of an ice sculpture. Davian quietly revels in his own monstrosity, and Hoffman revels in playing him. This is one of many roles that shows how much this great actor is truly missed.
Finally, as with the Bond films, you can truly judge each MI extravaganza from its stunts and exotic locales. With this installment, Abrams doesn’t disappoint: The Hamburg assault is pretty generic, but Hunt and company also stage a break-in at the Vatican, and a rooftop heist in Shanghai. Cinematographer Dan Mindel does an exquisite job, with the neon-drenched skyline of Shanghai serving as a series highlight.
I’ve binged 007, Jason Bourne, and Ethan Hunt, and I can tell you one thing: After a while, their movies grow a little bit mechanical. Each of those heroes signed up to lead a life of danger, so falling out of airplanes and getting thrown off motorcycles is just part of the biz. I don’t want to sound calloused, and I love each series, but do all those stunts and explosions add up to? MI3 correctly shows us someone who didn’t sign up for that life, and it gives Ethan Hunt a passionate reason to make sure they don’t lose it. In the process, it makes us care a little more. MI3 represents one of the better spy flicks out there.
126 min. PG-13. Paramount Plus.