Film Reviews (2006)  
  Mission Impossible 3  

Perhaps the only virtue of the first two installments of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise was their style. The first jumped with Brian DePalma’s now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t visual chicanery, the second swirled and splattered in John Woo’s ballet of bullets (and doves). They reveled in the tradition of budget-busting summer popcorn flicks: big, dumb, and loud. Meaningless jargon, urgently spit from the mouths of perspiring heroes, lulled our incredulity just long enough for another special effect to whisk us along to the next spectacle. DePalma had his trompes l’oeil, Woo his motorcycles, dualies, and haunted hero (and doves). Whatever complaints we had—those, that is, that weren’t rendered moot after two hours of being “thrilled” into a state of limp exhaustion—we still had the joy of watching images which could only exist up there on the big screen.

Now comes the third chapter, this time directed by TV auteur J.J. Abrams, and his “Mission Impossible 3” evades the slick mannerisms of the first two for a smaller, more personal, and (relatively) easier to follow story. In a sense, the script, as it was it was in the first two films, is a forgettable scribble of silly plotlines. Tom Cruise’s lock-jawed intensity burns with impatience toward language. Often it seems the film’s dialogue is rapped by the players merely to allow Cruise to yell, to run, to rappel from high ceilings; when the movie reaches its highest emotional pitch, Cruise even yells louder. But the intervals are quiet. Abrams brings a welcome, earthy sense of humor to the movie. In the middle of a pulse-pounding cloak-and-dagger mission in Vatican City, Tom Cruise’s Ethan has an unexpected rendez-vous with Ving Rhames’ Luther. The exchange is the film’s funniest. Luther: “What’s up?” Ethan: “Nothing. What’s up with you?” Luther: “Nothing”. Just another day at the office for these two super spies.

The tone-breaking typifies Abrams’ writing. He has a sixth sense for having a character articulate the thoughts of the audience at the point when absurdity threatens to derail the plot’s credibility. So Maggie Q, right before blowing up a Lambhorgini, whinges, “But it’s such a nice car”. Abrams continually tweaks spy movie conventions, having particular fun with the “Rabbit’s Foot”, the film’s MacGuffin, a deadly weapon sought by the villain. Problem is, no one knows what it is. In the usual “Setting The Stakes” scene, an IMF analyst gravely tells Hunt a terrifying story about the “anti-God”, a virus that would end the world—then he shrugs and chirps “of course, I’m just speculating”. If this is the way intelligence experts talk, it’s no wonder the big deciders in Washington finesse their Power Point shows.

The film’s smarts make MI:3 often funny and never less than watchable. Like the “Bourne” movies, Abrams takes care to establish respectable levels of technological plausibility throughout, even as he leads us just as carefully into the emotional logic of Ethan’s story. Along the way, Abrams takes time to use his cast to indulge in bits that play out like sketches. Luther brings the quips, lines like “That look in your eye is a pain in my ass”, as he works alongside Ethan like a grizzled magician’s assistant; the central set-piece, a con-job in Vatican City, is as funny as it is suspenseful. The supporting spies are used well, also. Maggie Q tells Jonathan Rhys-Meyers of a prayer she used to say for her frequently missing cat, and Rhys-Meyers, completely earnest, says “teach it to me”. A deadpan beat, after which they’re called into action, and we realize Abrams has prankishly led us on. Even in the film’s most outrageous scene, in which Ethan’s wife must kill him to save him, Abrams gives Cruise the hilarious line, “You gotta kill me or else I’m going to die”.

Abrams also enjoys quoting iconic action films. When Ethan reads the lips of his wife and her friends, it takes us back to HAL-9000’s lip-reading in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Leaping a gaping hole in a bridge, Ethan resembles Indiana Jones jumping across a pit in “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”. A shot of adrenalin to the heart reminds us of “Pulp Fiction”. Best of all, Cruise rides a Harley to meet his teammates as they set out on a mission—speeding along in a leather jacket across an airstrip right out of “Top Gun”. Though it is short on strong visuals, in these moments MI:3 feels warmly affectionate toward its characters, its genre, the original source material, and above all toward the audience. Abrams has made a respectful, almost reverent film. He’s got they keys to the Benz, and he doesn’t want to scratch the paint.

A quick tally, then. “Mission Impossible 3” is a smart, funny, and thoughtfully made popcorn movie. So what’s wrong with it? Why is this not a spy movie classic? For starters, it’s more pumped-up TV show than movie. In the harsh light of recent publicity, Cruise should have chosen to do what he does best—play the movie star—and leave the scaled-down geekdom for prime time. He lets Abrams cage him inside a television set. The story tiptoes when it should run and the images he gives us are TV-serviceable rather than big-screen exciting. The brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman is convincing as a gruff, single-minded villain, yet, like Cruise, weirdly understated, as if everyone had agreed to ground the film with a modicum of plausibility. Abrams might have a great spy film in him, but it will be his own. Making the “Mission Impossible” series respectable is like the Gideons distributing Bibles at a whorehouse. Summer cinema is what it is: Cruise needs to get back to car chases, big guns, and bigger bangs (and doves).