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Mission: Impossible III (2006)  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 05 May 2006

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Film Rating:
3.5
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Though at 126 minutes, it’s a little too long, “Mission: Impossible III” moves like lightning for most of its length. So does its star, Tom Cruise, who runs more in this movie than the horse did in “Seabiscuit.” And he looks like he could outrun Seabiscuit, too.

And he needs to do this running. From the audience’s perspective, he’s in danger from the opening frames of the film, when evil main villain Owen Davian (Philip Semour Hoffman, clearly having a great time) informs him in the film’s first line that he’s planted an explosive device in Cruise’s brain. And unless he gets what he wants, he’ll shoot Cruise’s new bride (Michelle Monaghan) in the brain. Cruise, again as Impossible Missions Force agent Ethan Hunt, is manacled to a chair, so all he can do is watch and try to outsmart Davian. The story then jumps back (without warning) to a time a few days earlier.

We have to wait until near the end for the resolution of the cliffhanger, but debuting director J.J. Abrams, working from a script he cowrote with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, wisely wraps up the opening cliffhanger before the actual climax.

The story of “MI:III”, as the ad has it, apparently took a while to work out; one reason Cruise made “War of the Worlds” last year was that this film was delayed. J.J. Abrams is the hottest writer in Hollywood right now (though just why is a bit of a mystery); when he was approached to write “Mission: Impossible III,” he demanded to be allowed to direct it as well.

This is a mixed blessing. There’s a grittiness and realism in this “Mission” that wasn’t present in the first two. Abrams also wanted to make the adventure more “personal” for Ethan Hunt, but has chosen a few all-too-familiar means of doing this. As the movie opens, Hunt and his fiancée Julia are celebrating their engagement. We realize that Julia has no idea that Ethan is the most daring secret agent on the planet, not even when his IMF duties call him away (to Berlin) in the middle of the party. He heads into action with a team that includes his long-time friend Luther (Ving Rhames, also in his third “Mission” movie).

Soon, Ethan learns from his principal IMF handler, Musgrave (Billy Crudup), that the Berlin action centers on a new technology referred to as the “Rabbit’s Foot.” No one is quite sure what it is, even evil international arms dealer Owen Davian, but Musgrave thinks it’s the “ultimate technology” capable of destroying the world. Musgrave calls it the “anti-God.” This, of course, really raises the danger bar; never before has Hunt been called upon to save the entire furshlugginer world. (At the end, though, a question remains: couldn’t someone make another “Rabbit’s Foot”?)

The Berlin escapade is almost a failure, and we see what happens when one of those brain bombs mentioned in the movie’s first line is actually used. (No, the head doesn’t explode.) IMF superchief Theodore Brassel (Laurence Fishburne) is Not Pleased with Hunt’s performance.

Things keep moving very fast as Hunt leads his team on an invasion of nothing less than the Vatican itself. They manage both to turn Hunt into a duplicate of Davian (and we see how they now make those swell Mission: Impossible masks) and kidnap him at the same time. For a few minutes, Hoffman gets to play a dashing hero, scaling scaffolding, disappearing down manholes, etc.

Someplace in here Ethan and Julia, a doctor, get married, a scene that, as with all too many, Abrams overplays. He requires Monaghan to quiver with excitement (lust?) during the ceremony; this is intended to be endearing, but you’re a bit embarrassed for the actress. There’s a scene on a long bridge over Chesapeake Bay that borrows a heck of a lot from “True Lies,” but is still excitingly staged and shot on its own. The result is Davian is reclaimed by his extremely well-equipped and –trained underlings, and Julia is kidnapped by another one. From this point on, the movie has the velocity of a freight train falling off a cliff.

The wrapup takes place in Shanghai. There’s a nifty little scene of Hunt outlining buildings on a window, then rapidly running through the math required to allow him to swing between buildings, Spider-Man style.

This “Mission” is less gadget-intensive and on a smaller scale than the first two, but it still provides a batch of summer excitement, with Tom Cruise in top form as the desperate Ethan Hunt. The supporting cast is good, though Monaghan doesn’t make a strong impression—but boy howdy, Philip Seymour Hoffman sure does. This is his first appearance in a big-scale summer movie since his supporting role in “Twister,” and is his first released movie since winning the Oscar for “Capote.” He makes a great supervillain; epicene, arrogant and brilliant. Ving Rhames and Laurence Fishburne are always good, and they are here, too.

As a director, though, J.J. Abrams is less impressive than his cast. “Mission: Impossible III” is all too clearly the work of a man more familiar with the requirements of TV than those of a giant action movie. To say he wildly overuses closeups is an understatement. Closeups are one of the most powerful tools at a director’s fingertips; there’s no more potent screen image than a tight shot on the face of a skilled actor, lit by a great cameraman. Especially with a giant Panavision image, as here, they should be used sparingly, providing the right emphasis when needed. Instead, Abrams shoots almost every scene in little other than closeups; presumably, this was to create a sense of intimacy, but it merely generates claustrophobia. When wider shots come, you have a distinct sense of relief. Scenes that would ordinarily use closeups use EXTREME closeups—eyebrows at the top of the frame, lower lip at the bottom. This isn’t emphasis, this is dermatology.

On top of that, he frequently uses a hand-held camera. This is another tool that should be used sparingly and judiciously. Instead, Abrams uses it in shot after shot after shot; there are no steady, still images anywhere in the film. And when a movie fills the giant Panavision screen, hand-held shots tend to resemble a football field that won’t hold still.
Since there are three screenwriters, it’s not easy to assign blame for the writing errors. But there are several. Not only is that bridge scene uncomfortably similar to shots in “True Lies,” but there’s an important death which imitates the demise of Dennis Hopper in “Speed.” Furthermore, there’s a bad guy in the IMF offices—and it’s painfully obvious just who it is. You can probably spot the culprit just from my brief synopsis earlier. Again, it’s the all-too-familiar failing of those unfamiliar with—or unsuited for writing—mystery stories: not anywhere nearly enough suspects.

Also, Abrams’ attempts at making this a more personal Impossible Mission are hackneyed and intrusive. I guess we’re supposed to feel more sympathy for Ethan because he’s in love and his darling is in danger than we would if he were just carrying out another mission where his friends and entire continents are at stake. But this give-the-hero-a-girlfriend is what almost ALL series tales with bachelor heroes end up doing. There’s absolutely nothing new, nothing creative in this, and the familiarity alone creates a certain distancing effect, however many times Ethan tells Julia he loves her. Also, the very last scene plays out as if it’s on the verge of a group hug; like Julia’s wedding-ceremony trembling, this is more embarrassing than touching.   

On the other hand, it’s undeniable that “Mission: Impossible III” is a heck of a lot of fun. As said before, it’s extremely fast-paced; you can hardly get your breath from the opening scene to the last. We get to see a lot more about the inner workings of the Impossible Missions Force. On the TV series, it wasn’t clear if the IMF was a government agency or a private group run by some altruistic squillionaires. We never saw the guy who left Mr. Phelps all those self-destructing messages. In this movie, it’s clear the IMF is like the CIA only more so, which is okay and doesn’t violate any “rules.” And it gives Laurence Fishburne another cool character.

Technically, the movie is everything a well-engineered summer epic should be. Fast with lots and lots of action; not only does Cruise run really fast and a lot, but someone’s thrown through a window or a door (or both) every few minutes. Chases are brief but thunderous. The score is terrific, often using the classic “Mission: Impossible” theme, even once on a piano.

Despite the overuse of closeups, Abrams keeps every scene focused tightly on the issue at hand, even if he sometimes confuses us about the layout of the buildings that are the locales. The best sequence, and the most like an episode of the TV series, is the secret assault on the Vatican; it’s so slick and pulled off with such panache that the preview audience applauded.

This is the first big summer movie out the door, and is going to make a lot of money. Abrams may not have been the best choice for director, but he is still clearly adept and professional, and so is the movie.







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