Following the widely-derided Mission: Impossible 2, the series remained dormant for a full six years before JJ Abrams, then best known for his work on TV spy series Alias, was brought onboard to try and resurrect it. Star Tom Cruise was also in need of a vehicle to win back his place in the heart of moviegoers, having undergone a series of PR disasters after unceremoniously firing his agent in 2004. Despite still being a draw at the box-office, with such successes as Minority Report, The Last Samurai and War Of The Worlds under his belt, his star’s public persona was seen as increasingly alienating, with his close support of Scientology becoming ever more pronounced.
There’s a clear sense in Mission: Impossible 3 of drawing back from the garish excesses of the second movie to something more intimate and character-driven. Having recently married Katie Holmes and with a child on the way, one suspects that public cynicism regarding the authenticity of Cruise’s family life may have played some part in the direction that M:I3 was taken. That may give you some clue as to how well it turned out.
Anyone familiar with Alias will immediately recognise why Abrams was brought onto the movie. The plot bears a number of resemblances to motifs employed repeatedly throughout the series, most notably opening in media res and featuring a protagonist struggling to keep his professional life as a spy separate from his personal life. Following his escapades spanking Dougray Scott around in Australia, Ethan Hunt is, in fact, no longer an active field agent but an instructor. His protégé, Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell, playing against type), is kidnapped while investigating an arms dealer, Owen Davian, who is trying to get his hands on a mysterious weapon known as the Rabbit’s Foot. Hunt has also found himself something approaching a steady home life, though his fiancée, Julie (Michelle Monaghan), is entirely unaware that his real job is considerably less mundane than the post she believes he’s holding down at the Department of Transportation.
If that’s seems like a lot of backstory to get through before the plot even begins, you’d be right. The movie starts with the series’ most powerful cold open, in which Davian holds a gun to Julie’s head and threatens to kill her if Hunt doesn’t tell him the location of the Rabbit’s Foot by the time he’s finished counting down from ten. This short sequence packs in a huge amount of information without betraying the intensity of the scene. While gripped by the sight of the normally cool-headed Hunt descend into pleading desperation as each of his negotiating tactics fail miserably, we’re subconsciously absorbing small details (Hunt having someone extremely close to him under threat, the value of the Rabbit’s Foot, Hoffman as the villain, etc) to be expanded upon later.
Unfortunately the effortless power of that opening scene doesn’t expand to the rest of the film. The plot is heavily streamlined in order to keep things moving, which wouldn’t be so bad were so much essential information not left missing or underdeveloped. We have no idea how Hunt and Julia met or why they’re attracted to each other beyond physical appearance, or even who they really are as people. Knowing so little about the two characters makes investing in their relationship a real mission: impossible (badum tish) as neither is given the slightest bit of depth either individually or as a couple. Monaghan’s natural sweetness almost pulls it off on her end, but Cruise has never seemed more robotic or unnatural. The scene in which Hunt throws a party to meet Julie’s family shows him descending into outright creepiness, as he starts reading people’s lips and injecting himself into their conversations. As mentioned previously, playing romance has never been Cruise’s strong point and the straight-faced nature of his scenes with Monaghan make the uncanny valley of his performance as Likeable Human Male all the more pronounced.
The spy stuff is more interesting by default, but still feels strangely hollow. The heavy use of colour grading in any scene set in an urban or industrial environment overemphasizes the blues and oranges to such an extent that the movie often has the look of a particularly offputting DVD cover. Abrams’ direction is acceptable, but while it’s a relief not to endure any more of Woo’s tiresome flourishes, his inexperience on film is painfully obvious. He shoots with the technical precision required on television, but fails to establish any sense of grandeur. The entire movie feels like a (remarkably expensive) feature-length series finale, only becoming truly cinematic in the terrific sequence in which Hunt’s convoy, carrying the captive Damian, is assaulted by air while crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. The narrative streamlining also makes it difficult to invest in the plot, as keeping the nature of the Rabbit’s Foot secret means there’s no sense of the scale of the threat in question. Simon Pegg’s Benji postulates a theory about it being the anti-God, but the suggestion is so over-the-top, and immediately dismissed by the character himself, as to be nothing more than empty hyperbole. The intention is obviously to keep the focus on the personal stakes for Hunt after Julie is kidnapped, an admirable goal which flounders due to that relationship being similarly underwritten.
What does work is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Davian. Rather than going full-on with boorish villain theatrics, Hoffman takes an unexpected road by imbuing Davian with a chilling, sociopathic stillness. He may not be the most physically dangerous antagonist Hunt has faced, but he’s aware that the morality restricting the actions of Hunt’s team makes him effectively invincible. His calmness is a sinister reflection of his absolute confidence and amorality, making him a grippingly atypical foe for the genre. Also fun is the set-piece in which Hunt breaks into the Vatican, which features a number of strong visual gags (and a mesmerising effect in which Hunt’s Hoffman mask seemlessly transforms him into Hoffman) and an interesting location missing from the factory/skyscraper infiltrations which make up two of the movie’s other major set-pieces. It’s just a shame Hunt’s team suffers the depth deficiency which diminishes all the movie’s major characters, though there’s at least a genuine sense of friendship between Hunt and his three-time partner Luther (Ving Rhames), while Maggie Q is just natural enough in her performance as Zhen Li not to disappear as thoroughly as Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Declan, who is notably solely for his terrible Irish accent.
The movie rediscovers its verve a little for the Shanghai-based climax, but even then struggles to elevate itself to heights above forgettable adequacy. True, that’s a huge step-up from M:I II, but hardly the sort of recommendation needed to revive a series struggling for relevancy in the wake of the hugely successful Jason Bourne movies and Daniel Craig’s soon-to-be-lauded debut as James Bond in Casino Royale. Fortunately, the fourth entry in the series, Ghost Protocol, would find in Brad Bird a director capable of marshalling the series’ disparate tones into something more enjoyable and distinctly its own. Check back tomorrow for the final entry in our series recap.