Director: J. J. Abrams
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As much as cinephiles love to rail against Hollywood and the dearth of good first-run movies in the popcorn days of summer, there’s a lot to be said for some exciting, escapist entertainment. This past weekend, deep in a grief-induced depression, I plunked myself in front of my television for a double-header of mindless immersion. First, I gobbled X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the third installment in this fantasy franchise that I love just for being about superheroes. It makes no sense, of course, but that’s what’s so great about it. The X-Men are just totally awesome, and their school is kind of a Hogwarts without the wands.
Then, only somewhat less ridiculous was Mission: Impossible III. I haven’t been as diligent about following this franchise as I have with X-Men and the Bourne capers; I enjoyed the first film well enough, but my fondness for the television series has kept me from completely buying into the emotionalism of the film versions. Barbara Bain, Martin Landau, Greg Morris, Peter Graves, and Peter Lupus were just so cool, almost wordlessly getting their impossible mission accomplished and never cracking, even when tortured. By contrast, the new IMF team of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Luther (Ving Rhames), Zhen (Maggie Q), Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and Benji (Simon Pegg) are wisecracking, adrenalin-pumped, friendly sorts who use the techniques of the TV IMF, but give the impression that they are always winging it, even when their plans are meticulously structured.
Having said all this, I must say that the M:I franchise is near the top of the heap of action movies. If you like explosions, chases, breathless cutting, and a likable hero to root for, these films—and particularly M:I 3—are for you. What M:I 3 does that would be unthinkable in the TV series is give Ethan Hunt a life. We all know that a spy’s life is a lonely one. Ethan dares to defy that convention, recklessly putting his beloved in danger because he doesn’t want to be out in the cold, because he wants to remember the world for which the IMF is fighting, to be a part of it. This point of view stands squarely at the center of the “you can have it all” ethos of the past 20 years. It makes Ethan a character more easily identified with, less a superhero than an athletic superstar. The film emphasizes this with a lot of trick photography that makes the 42-year-old Cruise look like he’s running as fast as Lance Armstrong can cycle and move with reflexes Jackie Chan in his prime couldn’t begin to approach.
The film begins on a scene that won’t happen until the film is more than half over. Ethan, banged up and tied down, watches as a villain we will later find out is black marketer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) holds a gun to a woman’s head and starts counting. Ethan begs him not to shoot, that he wants to help Davian get what he’s after. A pained tear runs down his face as Davian reaches 9. A pleading look, the count of 10, and bang! We’re into the movie.
Retired IMF agent Ethan is at his engagement party to the young and winsome Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Partygoers gossip with Julia about how she met Ethan. She tells them about a lake they went to, but can’t remember the name. Ethan, who has been watching her with the eyes of love through some glass doors, comes in and mentions the name to her. Everyone wonders how he could have known what they were talking about. We know. He’s an IMF agent who is a master of lip reading, of course. A call comes to Ethan’s cellphone. The caller with a seemingly innocuous message puts a worried furrow into Ethan’s brow. Ethan takes the ice cooler, dumps its contents, then tells Julia he has to go out to get more ice. He slips off and intercepts that package that self-destructs in 5 seconds after conveying the mission—retrieve captured agent Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell), Ethan’s protégé and a key operative in taking down Davian.
The emotional connection Ethan has to Lindsey forces his hand. He signs on and meets up with his old pal Luther, who introduces him to the rest of the team. They execute a nearly perfect rescue mission, but Lindsey has had an explosive implanted in her brain. Just seconds before a defibrillator on the helicopter charges to short-circuit the device, the explosive goes off. The clouding of Keri Russell’s eye after this happens really is effective, a grisly image Ethan can carry around for future reference.
Intelligence has it that something called Rabbit’s Foot will pass from Davian to some unknown buyers, and this would be a very bad thing. The IMF force is sent to a reception at the Vatican to stop Davian. In a classic M:I caper, Zhen dresses to the nines and infiltrates the reception in her late-model, cherry-red Maserati. Ethan sculpts a perfect disguise of Davian, uses some cool voice-simulation technology to copy his voice, and takes his place. The real Davian is captured for interrogation. It’s a very, very tasty operation that ranks with the best of the TV show’s stunts and improves upon them with better locations and gizmos.
Davian has vowed to hunt down anyone Ethan loves and kill him in front of her/him/it. He gets the chance when some black ops forces from Davian’s buyers spring him in a spectacular bridge attack sequence. (It wasn’t as cool as Magneto tearing the Golden Gate Bridge in half and swinging it to form a bridge to Alcatraz in X-Men 3, but you can’t have everything!) Davian, of course, snatches Julia, and forces Ethan and his IMF buddies to steal the Rabbit’s Foot from a fortresslike office building in Shanghai and deliver it to him. The scene where Ethan comes up with the parachute scheme to get into the building—drawing on a window to outline the buildings they would assault—is the brilliant kind of lunacy you would expect from an IMF leader caught in an emotional frenzy.
Events unfold in their inevitable way, with Ethan unable to deliver the Rabbit’s Foot, and that brings us to where the film opened. The denouement really strains credulity past the breaking point, but what the hell.
I found the parts of the film that remained true to the M:I spirit entirely satisfying. Other elements now de rigueur in action movies—explosions, low-flying helicopters threading through visually exciting obstacle courses (lots of vehicles of all types, in fact), double-triple-double crosses—I just accepted as part of the baggage. I didn’t think Philip Seymour Hoffman was a particularly chilling bad guy; unlike John Lithgow in similar roles, he was unwilling to chew the scenery even though he’s entirely capable of it. Ving Rhames was fun in an essentially humorless film. Billy Crudup and Lawrence Fishburn didn’t add much as higher-ups in IMF, but they did what they needed to do.
Most of all, however, I liked Tom Cruise in a performance that was clearly inspired by his newfound love, Katie Holmes. Michelle Monaghan is a bit of a ringer for Holmes, and the love scenes between her and Cruise were absolutely convincing and deeply felt. I don’t care what anyone says about Cruise’s couch jumping or odd religious beliefs—this is one fellow who has finally found love and who is not shy about showing it, even in his movies. This is an action film that manages to be a darn good romance, too.