Principal Cast : Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Monaghan, Ving Rhames, Billy Crudup, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg, Eddie Marsan, Laurence Fishburne, Bellamy Young, Jeff Chase, Sasha Alexander, Aaron Paul.
Synopsis: Ethan Hunt must locate the whereabouts of the mysterious Rabbit’s Foot before a ruthless black market dealer kills his wife.
“You got a family? A wife? I’m gonna find her, and I’m gonna hurt her. And I’m gonna kill you in front of her.”
Hard to believe that Mission: Impossible III was director JJ Abrams first stint behind the camera for a feature film. Impossible III delivers all manner of exciting, visceral, gut-punch thrills, helmed by a man essentially a freshman to the world of film. Hindsight being what it is, it’s easy now to see how Abrams would go on to deliver a rebooted Star Trek, as well as a throwback to those 80’s child-centric adventure movies in Super 8, but at the time, Mission: Impossible III was something of an unknown quantity. Abrams, who until then had existed primarily in the realm of television, bringing us Felicity (with Keri Russell, who would co-star here), Alias and Lost, was brought on board to change things up from the debacle of MI2, the John Woo film that had done boffo box-office, but was a frankly terrible movie. Although he had plenty of industry credibility, Abrams was an unknown quantity with helming a tentpole franchise flick like a Mission: Impossible movie, so I guess one had some reservations that the guy could bring things back to the level Brian DePalma’s original hit had achieved. By now, Tom Cruise’s couch-jumping shenanigans had made him something of a laughing stock amongst general audiences, who found his antics bizarre, and so with the release of MI3 basking in the awkward afterglow of the superstar’s moment of insanity, the film was hard up against it to draw in the crowds once more.
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has retired from active field work for the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) and instead trains new recruits while settling down with his fiancée Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan), a nurse at a local hospital who is unaware of Ethan’s past. After a protege, Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell) is captured whilst on a mission, and on the orders of IMF Operations Director John Musgrave (Billy Crudup), Ethan assembles a team to rescue her – Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), Declan Gormley (Jonathan Ryhs Meyers) and Zhen Lei (Maggie Q). After the rescue mission goes wrong, Ethan is accused by the IMF’s director Theodore Brassell (Laurence Fishburne) of being complicit in her death, and learns of the existence of Owen Davian, one of the worlds most infamous black market dealers. Ethan learns of the existence of a mysterious “Rabbit’s Foot”, an item of extreme importance to Davian, and through which Ethan captures the criminal to obtain information gleaned from a secret message left by Farris before she died. When Davian escapes custody, he goes after Julia, bringing Ethan and his team to Shanghai, to return the Rabbit’s Foot in order to save her life.
IM3 kicks off with a bang – immediately, the film opens with Cruise, trapped in a chair, taunted by the man we would come to know as Davian into revealing the location of the “Rabbit’s Foot” lest he execute Michelle Monaghan in another chair opposite. Tense, palpably thrilling, it sets the scene immediately and – if the gunshot-inspired shock-moment is anything to go by – grabs the audience’s attention. Does it work? Yes, it sure does. The bulk of the rest of the film is essentially an enormous flashback, as we see what happens to get Ethan, his wife, and Davian into that room, and the twisting, turning, brinkmanship by both hero and villain are handled with flair and dexterity by Abrams’ keen eye for detail.
Where Mission: Impossible II was all shallow, derivative slo-motion-riddled trash, here we have a more circumspect Hunt trying to balance his work and life; far be it for Hunt to ever really have a “real” life when he’s an IMF operative, retired or not, but in its attempt to “humanize” him to a degree, the film peddles his superhero antics with a fairly straight bat. He can read lips, pick locks, outrun a drone strike, leap between Shanghai skyscrapers, and even stop his own heart to prevent an implanted explosive device from detonating. It’s a reasonably high bar, that one. So to find him hooking up with nurse Julia, whose family and friends have no idea of Ethan’s real job, seems a little…. well, lowbrow. But III’s screenplay, by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman (who would go on to write the Star Trek reboot films for Abrams) and Abrams, manages to avoid making Hunt look like he’s taking the low road by actually having Monagahan’s Julia be a competent, exciting, dramatic character worthy of Hunt’s status. If this sounds misogynistic, then so be it: audiences needed to buy into the relationship for the film to work in its latter stages, as Hunt must fight to protect her against Davian, and also to buy the fact that Hunt wouldn’t just abandon her to his mission – something he’s proven adept at over the course of the previous 2 films – so Abrams spends a fair amount of time making us appreciate, enjoy and attach to Monaghan as a character.
Abrams also delivers the film’s action quotient with aplomb. The close-up razzle-dazzle we’ve come to know and love (maybe) is in full flight here, as his camera zips, zooms and zags around the various locations the movie arrives in – the Vatican, Shanghai, Germany, and Washington all come in for some Impossible explosions – all with that color-corrected, searingly high-strung camerawork and cinematography (by Dan Mindel) working in its favor. The film has a really nice visual aesthetic, as the landscapes pop with vibrant, enhanced tones and contrast, all working to produce a certain emotion in the viewer. Abrams’ command of pacing, his dexterity in the editing bay, and his ability to really shock the viewer with “moments” of action that catapult the zenith each sequence, is exceptionally well developed even here, in his first film. Wisely, the movie seems less driven by CG effects (unless where dictated by budget or location – I can’t imagine the Vatican ever allowing many explosions to go off within its walls, can you?) and more by practical footage, which lends a sense of realism to the film that was missing in MI2. Also, Abrams brings the franchise back to its tense, intricate roots of twists and turns, eschewing John Woo’s histrionic overblown explosiveness for a more personal, almost intimate action film that delivers a more raw, blood-lust-driven narrative edge. It works deliciously, eliciting thrills even where there shouldn’t be, and returning the franchise back to it’s “American James Bond” status in Hollywood’s franchise maul.
The cast, led by a fairly decent Tom Cruise, are all working with great material. Cruise himself is less a lone-wolf here, and more a team player (something John Woo didn’t get, apparently), and works well with both Monaghan and his IMF teammates. Ving Rhames is less comedy and more superspy soul-mate in this installment, while Maggie Q adds sex appeal, and Johnathan Rhys Meyers adds… whatever it is he adds; Abrams’ soon-t0-be-Scotty, Simon Pegg, does his best Q impression, as IMF technician Benji Dunn. The most interesting character is easily Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Davian, an enormously Lex Luthor-esque villain who seems to lack fear or any kind of morality, and is the first person we’ve seen truly get under the skin of Ethan Hunt. Hoffman’s magnetic, brutal portrayal of him is some fine work, making his passing from drug overdose all that much more heartbreaking. Hoffman’s retort to Hunt’s interrogation, soon after capture, about wanting to track down his wife and hurt her, is skin-crawling for its effectiveness, made all the more so potent by Hoffman’s focused performance. He absolutely chews the scenery, making Davian that much more malevolent a villain than just a simple Bad Guy clone he might otherwise be. Goddam, what a loss.
I know there’s some cynical folks around who won’t give this film a chance due to Cruise’s involvement in it. Fair enough, the man’s earned plenty of scorn, ridicule and outright hatred for being an utter nutter in his personal life. But as an artist oft reviled by sections of the community (a lot like Mel Gibson, perhaps?) there’s a lot to enjoy about the man’s work – as opposed to his real life – and Mission: Impossible III is more than the sum total of its slick, razor-wire parts. JJ Abrams crafts a film that delivers plenty of pulse pounding excitement, plenty of gut-punch emotional rockets and white-fingered twists; this Impossible Mission is indeed a cracker. At its most pop-culturally iconic, this one is easily the more accessible of the films in the franchise to date, and if nothing else, it gives us back a short-haired Ethan Hunt we can attach to, not the long haired buffoon of MI2.