Sunday, May 28, 2006

'Mission: Impossible III'

From the start, “Mission: Impossible III” was, for me, always about J.J. Abrams, not Mr. Placenta Eater. And in that respect, it’s pretty good for the “Alias”/”Lost” creator’s feature film directing debut.
With skills honed through several years of managing the superspy television series that made him a star, Abrams makes the most of his new toys (read: HUGE budget) in “M:I III”. I didn’t think by-the-numbers action movies could surprise me anymore, but there are some genuinely jaw-dropping scenes in this movie (I won’t spoil them for you, don’t worry).
Sometime in 2005, though, Abrams must have thought, “What have I done?” It wasn’t exactly the best year of Tom Cruise’s career, what with all the cradle robbing, couch jumping, and all. Plus, Abrams had to figure out how to make us care about yet another derring-do special agent, when there are already so many better ones out there—his own Sydney Bristow from “Alias” and Jack Bauer from “24” leap to mind.
So Abrams (along with fellow “Alias” scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) spend the first 15 minutes or so of the latest “Mission: Impossible” installment forcing a “humanizing” setup down our throats, with the hope that we’ll actually, you know, care what happens to Mr. Freaky Grin. In a plot device straight out of an “Alias” episode, the film opens with a torture scene, cuts to the main title, then flashes back a few days to show us how we get there.
Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has left field work behind to become merely a trainer for the super-secret IMF, because he’s found a reason to have a regular life—Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who thinks he works for the Department of Transportation. Trouble is, one of Hunt’s trainees has been kidnapped and he’s asked to go get her.
Thus begins a series of events that gets Hunt’s lady kidnapped, which supposedly builds tension. “M:I” was never meant to be a story with much heart—it was all for kicks, if not quite the tongue-in-cheek action of James Bond, then pretty close. Plus, Cruise has been so oversaturated, it’s really difficult to separate his persona from his character (amazing how things change, because I had no such trouble with 2002’s “Minority Report”). The humanizing elements are a facile attempt at damage control, and it doesn’t work.
But that’s the bad stuff. There’s plenty to enjoy in “Mission: Impossible III.”
Abrams delivers a straightforward action thriller that, once it gets going, never slows down. Cruise must have had a ball filming this one, because he’s swinging from skyscrapers, firing guns, dodging missiles (yes, MISSILES) and generally causing mayhem the entire time. There’s also plenty of high-tech wizardry on display, including an excellent scene where we finally get to see how they make those lifelike masks and another where Hunt’s buddy Luther (a typically solid Ving Rhames) gets to fire a batch of machine guns using computers and a bunch of track ball mice. Sweet.
Speaking of Rhames, the supporting cast is superb, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a sublimely sadistic villain. Showcasing some of his darker side that escaped in 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” Hoffman steals every scene he’s in—including those in which there are TWO of him onscreen (long story). With a cool-as-a-cucumber seethe reminiscent of John Malcovich, let’s hope there’s more—and bigger—bad guy roles in this chameleon’s future (he’s not in the frame nearly enough here).
Overall, “Mission: Impossible III” was better than I thought it would—or could—be, but I should have expected no less from the man they call “Jaybrams.” As popcorn flicks go, it’s certainly solid; unfortunately, this one tries to be one of those “action movies with a heart” and doesn’t carry it off. Still, it’s meant to be seen on a big screen and utilizing a booming sound system, so I would definitely recommend it for a fun evening out.
And I can’t wait to see what Abrams can do with a movie without quite so much baggage.
Grade: B

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