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From the DVD Shelf: Mission: Impossible III (2006)

I really enjoyed the Brad Bird-directed fourth installment in Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series (click here for my review), and that made me want to go back and watch the third installment.  I’d really enjoyed Mission Impossible III back when it was released, and it was great fun to re-watch.

I have some issues with the first Mission: Impossible film, but overall I think it’s pretty successful.  I think the first 40-45 minutes of Mission: Impossible II are pretty great, but then the whole thing collapses into a big awful mess.  The third and fourth M:I films have been far more successful than the first two, in my opinion — J. J. Abrams and Brad Bird have crafted films that are much closer to what I’d like these Mission: Impossible films to be.

Mission: Impossible III represents J. J. Abrams’ theatrical directorial debut, but you’d never know it by watching the film.  The movie looks amazing, and is directed with incredible confidence and grace by Mr. Abrams.  His camera is constantly active — not to the degree that you’re distracted by it, but in a way that throws the audience right into the middle of the visceral action.

And boy is this film action-packed.  I had forgotten just how many spectacular action set-pieces there are in the film.  There’s that helicopter chase through a field of wind-powered turbines.  There’s the complex break-in and kidnapping staged in the middle of the Vatican.  There’s the brutal helicopter and drone attack on the IMF convoy traveling across a bridge.  There’s the death-defying break-in to the skyscraper in Shanghai.  I could go on!  Each of those sequences could be the centerpiece of another action movie, they’re that good.  Each sequence is a delight of twists and suspense, marvelously well-orchestrated by Mr. Abrams and his team.

Although there’s plenty of super-spy craziness in the film, all of the action in Mission: Impossible III feels far more gritty and grounded than that in the first two films.  J.nJ. and his team make clear, right from the start, that they have set out to create a different type of M:I film.  I love the very scary and very intense scene that opens the film (in which we see Ethan Hunt captured and tied to a chair, while Philip Seymour Hoffman counts down ten seconds before he says he will execute Ethan’s wife in front of him).  It’s a terrifying moment, and also a very simple one — just three people and a gun in a darkened room.  It’s not at all the way I’d expect this big-budget, fantasy super-spy movie to open.

The other strength of Mission: Impossible III is that, for the first time since about the thirty-minute mark in the first film, the focus is not just on Ethan Hunt, super-spy, but on Ethan’s team.  Ving Rhames has his meatiest role in all four Mission: Impossible films, and he eats it up.  He’s marvelous in the film, a true partner to Ethan, loyal and brave and brilliant.  And very funny.  Mr. Rhames gets some of the best lines in the film (the best being: “And did you sleep with your little sister?”).  Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q play Declan and Zhen, the other two members of Ethan’s team.  They’re both terrific, with a lot of fun bits for each of them to play throughout the film.  I wish we got to know the two characters better, but the fact that they’re involved in the story from start-to-finish is a big step in the right direction for the franchise.  (I think the fourth film, Ghost Protocol, would do even better in fleshing out the people on Ethan’s team.)  But Mr. Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q are both terrific performers who bring a lot of life to their characters, allowing us to imagine a lot of the backstory and character that the film’s script really doesn’t give us.  One of the biggest successes of the film is introducing Simon Pegg’s character Benji.  He’s only in two scenes in the film, but they’re both hysterical, and the filmmakers wisely gave Mr. Pegg a larger role in Ghost Protocol. I also loved Keri Russell as Ethan’s tough protege and Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan!) and Laurence Fishburne as IMF administrators.

Speaking of which, I love that the film gives us a peak into the working of the IMF.  And on the topic of the working of the IMF, the sequence that shows us how, exactly, the classic IMF masks are made is genius, and one of my favorite bits in the whole four-movie franchise.  It’s all part of this film feeling more real than the first two — the masks don’t just magically appear, we see all the steps that have to happen for them to be created.  Very cool.

Michelle Monaghan has been looking for a role as great as the one she had in the magnificent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (go track down that brilliant film right now if you’ve never seen it) and this isn’t it.  But that being said, she’s still great as Ethan’s love interest, Julia.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t have too much to do in the film other than be cute and vulnerable and then get kidnapped, but she brings as much heart and sole as she can to the role.  Her natural beauty and likability help bring life to the character.  Watching the film, though, you like Michelle Monaghan so much as Julia that it’s hard not to hate Ethan Hunt a little bit for the horror that you know he’s going to eventually bring into this young girl’s life.  That’s an awkward place to put the hero of the film, but it’s an interesting tension and one that is central to the film’s story.

Then there is Philip Seymour Hoffman.  He plays Owen Davian, the main villain.  What exactly Owen does or is planning to do is left curiously vague by the film — I guess he’s some type of high-tech arms dealer, but that’s never really specified.  But Mr. Hoffman is so good, and so terrifyingly menacing, that it doesn’t matter.  It’s clear from the moment we meet him that Owen is a real threat to Ethan.  The presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the reasons this film works as well as it does.  All three other M:I films have really lacked a solid bad-guy.  The first one had a great villain, but because it’s a twist that that character is the villain, we don’t really get to see him be villainous until the very end.  And the second and fourth films totally lack a meaningful bad-guy.  If you can tell me the name of the villain in either the second or fourth film right now, without looking it up, I’ll be extraordinarily impressed.  Case closed.  But casting Philip Seymour Hoffman was genius, and boy does he kill in the role.

I was surprised to see, watching the film’s credits, that the screenplay was by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci.  I have not been a huge fan of Mr. Kurtzman and Mr. Orci’s screenwriting efforts of the past few years (I have commented repeatedly that the only aspect of J. J. Abrams’ big Star Trek relaunch that didn’t really work was the script), but their work on Mission: Impossible III is terrific.

My only real complain with the film is that I think it gets a little wobbly, for a few minutes, when the action moves to Shanghai.  When Ethan Hunt comments that they have only two hours to get the Rabbit’s Foot, and they haven’t even begun to plan his aerial break-in of the skyscraper, my eyebrows raised.  Even for this crazy series, it stretches credibility to the breaking point that they could plan the whole heist and assemble all of the equipment (a base-jumping parachute?  A baseball pitch-machine???) in less than two hours.  And while I can understand the rationale behind the decision, it’s hard not to be a bit disappointed that we don’t get to see what happens inside the skyscraper.

As for the Rabbit’s Foot itself, I alternate between loving that the film doesn’t even bother to explain what the weapon is or what the bad guys plan to do with it, or being frustrated by that vagueness.  It’s very gutsy to just say to the audience that “this is the macguffin — the bag guys want it and the good guys don’t want them to have it — and that’s all you need to know.”  On the other hand, there are times when that vagueness feels like something of a cop-out, like the writers just couldn’t be bothered to come up with something really cool and dangerous.  I am split down the middle on this one!

No matter.  Mission: Impossible III is a taut, lean action-adventure, with some great character moments, some winning humor, some amazing action set-pieces, and most importantly of all some real threats to our heroes and real stakes to the story.  It’s surprising to see a third installment of an action-movie franchise with this much energy, and with the success of Ghost Protocol it’s apparent this franchise still has a lot of life in it.

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