Mission: Impossible III Review
The best thing about the Mission: Impossible series is its variety. Tom Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner keep the franchise fresh by bringing in directors with very different sensibilities to craft sequels that stand apart from their predecessors. That's a brave strategy since it risks alienating fans who want more of the same (many people who enjoyed M:I 1 disliked M:I 2) but it also means the films never seem like clones of each other, often a fault of the James Bond series.
In 1996, Brian De Palma made the first Mission: Impossible film an elegant heist thriller based around a couple of show-stopping sequences - a suspenseful raid on CIA headquarters and an eye-popping helicopter chase through the Channel Tunnel. Four years later, John Woo turned M:I II into a typically over-wrought John Woo movie complete with slow-mo camerawork, balletic fight scenes and fluttering white doves. The highpoint was the blistering climactic motorcycle chase.
For the third film, Cruise and Wagner have turned to JJ Abrams, the much-hyped creator of the groundbreaking TV shows Alias and Lost. His approach has been - perhaps unsurprisingly - to make a two hour, $185 million Alias episode with Tom Cruise doing everything Jennifer Garner does short of wearing stockings and fetish gear. Of course Alias owes a lot to Mission: Impossible - it borrowed the format of the original 1960s TV show, sending its star on new international missions every week, involving disguises, gadgets and elaborate operations. Abrams added his own wrinkles however, like a developing storyline with a new twist every week (sometimes turning the show completely on its head) and a Buffy-style contrast between the heroine's fantastic adventures and her ordinary life.
Mission: Impossible III is structured just like Alias - it moves at breakneck pace from one globetrotting mission to another. We visit Berlin, Rome and Shanghai - unlike Alias, M:I III can actually afford location work! In between the heists the plot is advanced with Alias-like twists and double-crosses. There's also the occasional moment set aside for home life and romance - emotional involvement is something that's been missing from the Mission: Impossible series till now. The themes should be familiar to fans of the show: work intruding dangerously on personal lives, sinister organisations seeking powerful weapons and treachery from above. If you have a soft spot for Marshall Flinkman, you'll be pleased to know M:I III's comic relief is provided by Shaun Of The Dead's Simon Pegg, playing a talkative techie who could be Marshall's English cousin.
Mission: Impossible III even opens like many an Alias episode, by teasing us with a tense climactic scene before flashing back to the beginning of the story. IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is strapped to a chair in a dingy room. A young woman he cares for (Michelle Monaghan) is tied to another chair, facing him. A sadistic slimeball (Philip Seymour Hoffman) stands over her with a gun to her head. He's in the process of counting to ten. If Hunt hasn't told him where to find an object known as the Rabbit's Foot by the time he reaches ten... bang!
Flashback to an engagement party. The young woman we saw tied to a chair is Julia and she's just become Ethan Hunt's fiancée. She thinks he works for the Transport Department, studying traffic patterns. In fact Hunt is still with IMF but no longer on active duty - he's training future agents. During the party, he receives a call from his former handler, Musgrave (Billy Crudup). There's a situation: Ethan's star pupil Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell) has disappeared on a mission in Berlin.
Lindsey's being held hostage by an elusive arms dealer called Owen Davien - the slimeball from the opening scene. Lindsey was more than a pupil to Ethan, she was like a younger sister so he agrees to come out of retirement and attempt a rescue. Ethan kisses his wife-to-be goodbye and heads to Berlin. Accompanying him are three IMF agents: there are newcomers Zhen (Hong Kong star Maggie Q) and Declan (Match Point's Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and of course there's wisecracking computer genius Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), the only character besides Hunt to appear in all the Mission: Impossible films.
M:I III tells a compelling story, courtesy of JJ Abrams and two of his Alias collaborators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. The plot is clever and unpredictable enough to keep you hooked. The characters are well written and the dialogue more memorable than in previous M:I installments. There's room for some surprisingly playful story developments. I particularly liked the change of protagonist in the climactic shoot-out.
As movie-making, it's energetic and exciting. The film hurtles from one expensive action scene to another, rarely stopping for air. Those who thought the first two movies had slow stretches will have no cause for complaint this time although some may miss the style of Brian De Palma's original and others the supercharged excitement of John Woo's follow-up. JJ Abrams, who has never directed a feature film before, is a good director of suspense and action but he's not in the same league as De Palma and Woo.
The enormous budget provides some real spectacle. The locations are well used. If we don't see much of Berlin at night, both Rome and Shanghai are shot to impressive effect - their respective tourist agencies should be delighted. If some of the action amounts to generic shoot-outs and some of the CGI looks like exactly that, there are two truly thrilling set-pieces. One involves a raid on a skyscraper and the other a moving jailbreak on what looks like the same Florida causeway used in Licence To Kill and True Lies.
Abrams has assembled a very strong cast. Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman makes a magnificently evil villain. I think the movie gets it dead right by never giving him any laughs and keeping his scenes to a bare minimum. It's been a while since a movie bad guy seemed like such a threat. Laurence Fishburne, playing the IMF director, also makes the most of a couple of good scenes. Ving Rhames is once again very funny as Ethan's longtime partner and while Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers don't have a lot to work with, they're likeable sidekicks. Ms Q is certainly a pleasant sight in a revealing party dress. Michelle Monaghan and Keri Russell aren't asked to do much more than be spunky and cute. Simon Pegg is a scream.
As for Tom Cruise, he's a physical presence rather than an actor in these films. Ethan Hunt has never been much of a character. After three movies, what do we know about him other than he's a good guy, he fancies women and he takes on impossible missions? Fortunately Cruise is one of those rare stars who can fill out a blank role with his own charisma and he does the job as well as it can be done.
Mission: Impossible III is a fine action movie, a solid addition to the series and a good start to the summer movie season. It leaves you humming the theme tune and looking forward to the next installment.