For all the couch-jumping craziness, Scientology oddity, creepy romances with budding ingenues and public spankings from corporate overlords, one fact got somewhat lost in the shuffle: Mission: Impossible III (or M:I:III if you’re nasty) is a damn fine return to form. The M:I franchise was on life support after John Woo’s artful but inert 2000 sequel to Brian De Palma’s invigorating 1996 adaptation of the Sixties TV classic, one of the better films of the Nineties. Overblown and drained of any real spy-centric sequences, Mission: Impossible II often felt like a trailer in search of a film; Cruise’s sizzle-less chemistry with Thandie Newton, that absurdly protracted fist-fight between Cruise and the bland Dougray Scott, as well as a needlessly overheated plot didn’t exactly help matters either.
Some time away from the material seems to have rejuvenated both Cruise and the creative team — after cycling through a series of directors who came close to pulling the trigger but ultimately walked away (including David Fincher and Joe Carnahan), Cruise ingeniously tapped “Felicity,” “Alias” and “Lost” mastermind J.J. Abrams to overhaul the ailing series and start fresh, from both a screenplay and directorial standpoint. It’s a move that worked, but in all of Cruise’s self-sabotaging PR bumbles, might have been obscured — fortunately, now that much of the TomKat madness has subsided, Mission: Impossible III can be appreciated for what it is: a top-shelf Hollywood summer blockbuster, served up with panache and wit and featuring one of the more chillingly realized villains of 2006, Owen Davian (played with obvious relish by Capote Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Outside of Hoffman, Mission: Impossible III boasts a tremendous ensemble cast: Billy Crudup, Keri Russell, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Monaghan, Simon Pegg (in a role originally intended for Ricky Gervais), Maggie Q, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and the only actor returning with Cruise for the third time, Ving Rhames. It’s these players who elevate Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Abrams’s lean, muscular script into something approaching a cerebral action-drama — of all the M:I films, this is easily the one that insults your intelligence least, although it does ask viewers to accept some sizable coincidences, particularly near the finale; that said, it does hew remarkably close to its own internal logic.
As the film begins (after a white-knuckle opening sequence that will rivet you to the screen), Ethan Hunt (Cruise), now retired from IMF, is co-hosting an engagement party with his bride-to-be Julia Meade (Monaghan) when he’s surreptitiously alerted of agent Lindsey Farris’s (Russell, in an extended cameo) abduction by ruthless arms dealer Owen Davian (Hoffman). Dispatched with an IMF team that includes Luther Stickell (Rhames), Declan Gormley (Rhys Meyers) and Zhen Lei (Maggie Q), Hunt soon finds himself charged with the task of tracking down Owen and putting him away for good. While Hunt chases the arms dealer around the world — with stops in Rome and Shanghai — he must also contend with interoffice politics, including a squabble between Musgrave (Crudup) and his superior, Theodore Brassel (Fishburne). Twists and turns aplenty bring viewers full circle, back to the exceptionally tense opening moments — Mission: Impossible III is able to deliver upon that jaw-dropping sequence, cementing it as one of the few enjoyable blockbusters from the summer of ’06.
More than its screenplay, assured direction and A-list cast, Mission: Impossible III works because of its cold-bloodedness: actions have consequences, secrets have repercussions and sense of ruthless inevitability permeate the propulsive action set-pieces. It distinguishes this film from its predecessors in a willingness to turn up the volume and leave bodies behind; there’s a brutality — personified by Owen Davian — that informs the rest of the film. The villain is playing for keeps and thankfully, so too does this surprisingly intense and (mostly) bloodlessly violent PG-13 movie. It’s but one of many elements Abrams and his team get right, but it’s one that sets the film on a firm foundation. There are those who raise the point that much of what passes for narrative in Mission: Impossible III is recycled and repurposed from other sources and it’s a fair accusation — few summer movies aspire to anything approaching originality — but I would argue that Abrams and company thieve this material with such flair that it’s hard to hold a grudge.
There are many out there who may bypass Mission: Impossible III altogether based merely on the reputation of its star and his highly visible antics. Be that as it may — if you’re willing to separate the man from the movie, you’ll find that Mission: Impossible III is a thoroughly involving popcorn action flick, the kind that so many trailers promise every year but often fail to deliver. It’s a kinetic, compelling piece of high-end multiplex amusement and as the summer of ’06 goes, one of its best.