Say what you will of Tom Cruise; he's got terrific taste in directors. During the six years of development that went into Mission: Impossible III, a long list of esteemed filmmakers have come and gone. David Fincher (Fight Club), Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) and Joe Carnahan (Narc) were all, at one time, attached to direct.
After Brian De Palma's exquisitely paced but overly contrived Mission: Impossible and John Woo's operatic and idiotic Mission: Impossible II, Cruise realized that his macho franchise needed a complete reboot.
Eventually, he enlisted J.J. Abrams (creator of Alias and Lost), a man who knows a lot about building a successful franchise. In fact, III is pretty much an episode of Alias with an unlimited budget and Tom Cruise in place of Jennifer Garner. Abrams brings his slick, stylish and highly personal approach to storytelling, rounding out the action with nicely sketched moments of human drama.
From the film's opening, the director makes clear his intent to create a more personal tone than his predecessors. Instead of an elaborate mission with big stunts and effects, Abrams begins with a suspenseful face-to-face confrontation: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is tied to a chair. Evil arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) points a gun at Hunt's fiancee Julia (Michelle Monaghan). He wants something, and if he doesn't get it, he'll shoot the girl in the head. "One, two, three ..."
From here we flash back to how Cruise's semi-retired secret spy got pulled back into service. Trotting from one end of the globe to the other, Hunt and his crack team of fellow agents use their endless array of gadgets, disguises and weapons to stop Owen from getting something called the rabbit's foot. We're never really told what exactly it is but it's got a biohazard sticker on the case so it must be pretty nasty. Basically, Tom runs from one incredible location to the next either to shoot someone or blow something up. Along the way he's double- and triple-crossed by enemies he thought were allies, and vice versa, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Abrams' approach stands out because he tries to turn Ethan Hunt into an actual character. In the past, Hunt was much like James Bond: He had no personal history or investment, and the stakes were purely professional. By focusing III on Hunt's personal dilemma instead of just another goofball global threat, Abrams provides an emotional backbone to the team's struggles; it gives the series some much-needed visceral juice.
Unlike the previous two installments, which featured all Tom, all the time, Abrams also recaptures the original television show's sense of well-oiled teamwork. A scene where the agents must execute a perfectly synchronized kidnapping at the Vatican strikes just the right tone, while Lalo Schifrin's way-cool version of the classic theme song chugs along.
Still, III isn't quite the film it could have been. The plotline falls into contrivances and an anticlimactic finale. Furthermore, Abrams is very much a product of television. Even with his slick attention to detail, the film lacks subtext and weight. Compared to the gritty undertones of the two Bourne films, the thrills come off as superficial and hollow.
Luckily, the supporting cast among them, Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Keri Russell, Laurence Fishburne and Billy Crudup is stellar.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, fresh off the Oscar boat, comes within inches of chewing scenery, but manages to keep his villain's ruthlessness grounded. Michelle Monaghan, who rocked the house in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, takes a nothing role and gives it some emotional heft.
Which leaves us with Tom Cruise, who clenches his jaw and strains his emotional range to show how far he'll go to save his lady. He gives it his all, but is upstaged by his off-screen persona, especially in light of recent behavior. With a vanity project like this, the only thing separating the iconic celebrity and heroic protagonist is Ethan Hunt's license to kill. Which begs the question: Is Mission: Impossible III an elaborate form of wish fulfillment or a warning against anyone who dares question Tom's love for Katie Holmes?
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.