Mission: Impossible III

Final Grade: B-

A third movie in the series, a third director and it’s anyone’s guess how it will turn out. Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible series, this time working with first time movie director and Lost and Alias producer J.J. Abrams. The first installment was a solid double off the center field wall. The second movie was a ground out to the shortstop. The third one… call it a sacrifice fly to right field that at least moves the runner into scoring position.

The familiar character of Ethan Hunt has retired from field work and, though maintaining a double identity to fool civilians, even his fianc©e, he now works as an instructor for up and coming IMF agents. One day – you guessed it, John Musgrave, played by Billy Crudup, shows up to ask him to come back to field work to rescue a fellow agent, a woman with whom Hunt developed a strong though platonic bond. Hunt is initially reluctant but, you guessed it, does accept the mission. However, what is supposed to be a quick rescue mission, good job! You guessed it again, is quickly revealed to be a small part of a larger scheme. Ethan follows his clues and comes into conflict with the arch villain Owen Davian, superbly realized by the wonderfully gifted Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The script for the movie is nothing special. It comes up with some clever gadgets, as we might expect, and allows for an ample offering of action and adventure. The characters in the film live and die on the actors’ merits alone; the script does little to flesh them out, though there are some clever lines of dialogue which show that someone was trying for something other than ordinary. In particular, Lawrence Fishburne’s character is blessed with some well conceived remarks.

With weak characters it is no surprise that there is very little gripping drama in the movie. The best it has to offer in this respect is the opening scene, a clip from the third act to which we realize we will eventually return. Though the scene is a good one, what follows is mostly action. As for the story, it is unremarkable but logically constructed enough to carry the action scenes.

And this is where the movie shines. Mr. Abrams demonstrates some real ability in choreographing the camera and the actors in a scene. It’s not artistic, but it is rock solid orthodox filmmaking, and he does a great job of getting the adrenaline rushing. There were a few times when I found myself gripping the arms of my theater seat. The visuals are also quite lovely, and to the extent that the movie is well done it is for those reasons. Those and Hoffman’s knock out portrayal of the villain. Hoffman simply must be considered in any serious debate about the best actor of that generation, premature though any such debate might be.

The movie, as mentioned before, falls flat in terms of character and real drama. It also presents a question which modern cinema is in the process of answering: How big can an action movie get before it is simply too much? For my taste, M:I3 has begun to dance along that line. Though any one action sequence is perfectly well done, how many explosions, flying bodies and daring stunts can a person take before he’s had too much? Some accomplished musicians have taken time off from their profession because they began to complain of the songs all sounding the same; that they were hearing bunches of notes instead of music. I got a taste of something similar from M:I3, and I thought back on the wonderful scene from the first movie where Cruise is suspended in midair as he infiltrates the CIA’s main computer. The sum of the individual action sequences from M:I3 together do not equal the tense thrills of that one solitary scene.

It’s not like the movie is pure action. J.J. Abrams does demonstrate some, though not a ton of, patience in the beginning of the story, and he does occasionally pause for breath as he goes. Nevertheless I felt at times like there was too much action and too big action. Every great event needs a foil to set it off. There is precious little of the small and the quiet character moments to make the big and loud stunts stand out. As always, I direct the good reader to Raiders of the Lost Ark for a lesson in how to do exactly that.

Amazingly enough, for all its size and volume the climax of the movie is disappointing. And it’s not a matter of relativity either; the resolution is simply nothing special in and of itself. It’s almost as if Abrams accidentally got the scenes out of sequence. A potential gut buster of a climax involving Ethan Hunt swinging from one skyscraper to another is simply another action sequence, told mainly from the perspective of his teammates waiting outside. It is an odd choice, perhaps done to give us a break from the unrelenting kineticism, but it might have served as a more appropriate pinnacle if during it we were given more of Hunt’s point of view.

The movie, by all rights, should be a C+. It’s an ordinary cookie cutter action film done just a little bit better than the other brainless Hollywood offerings. So why the higher grade? Great visuals that make the slick production values work well, and a truly phenomenal performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. No, the role is no Capote, but with so little to go on Hoffman manages a chilling portrayal of a villain who otherwise would have been ordinary.

The Upside:
The movie is solidly crafted with respect to the director/editor/director of photography. The acting is universally sound at worst and, with men like Hoffman and Fishburne, is often good or even excellent. The action sequences are perfect for the movie goer who, having reached his surfeit of Chaucer and Cicero, wants popcorn and explosions.
The Downside:
Not much character development, and not much gripping drama. The story is a bit ordinary too.
On the Side:
At one time or another, David Fincher, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Carnahan, Kenneth Branagh, Scarlett Johansson and Thandie Newton were all going to work on the project. Fincher dropped out to produce Lords of Dogtown, Carnahan left, Thandie Newton chose not to reprise her role from M:I2 in order to spend more time with her family, Branagh had to back out when shooting delays interfered with his forthcoming As You Like It, Scarlett Johansson pulled out and when Abrams came on Moss’ character, which had taken the place of the Thandie Newton character from the previous film, was scratched.

Film Stats:
Starring: Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Keri Russell
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Writing Credits: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, J.J. Abrams, Bruce Geller (television series)
Country: USA
MPAA: Rated PG-13
Run Time: 126 min.
Studio: Paramount (official site)

Technorati Tags: Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible, Action, Spy, CIA

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