A film review by Craig J. Koban


2006, PG-13, 126 mins.

Ethan Hunt: Tom Cruise / Owen Davian: Philip Seymour Hoffman / Luther Strickell: Ving Rhames / Lindsey: Keri Russell / Brassel: Laurence Fishburne / Musgrave: Billy Crudup / Declan: Jonathan Rhys Meyers / Julia: Michelle Monaghan

Directed by J.J. Abrams /  Written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and J.J. Abrams /  Based on the TV series created by Bruce Geller

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III is in the grand tradition of a new genre of filmmaking that I like to call “Cinema of Incredulity."   My review of last year’s TRANSPORTER 2 attempted to put my initial thoughts down as to what I thought this genre entailed before actually managing to find a term to narrowly define it. 

I remember staring at the many sights in that action-thriller, oftentimes while shaking my head in utter disbelief.  I remember one moment in particular where that film’s hero was able to leap frog from the standing position while two cars collide and crash directly underneath him.  Yup.  Sure.  Uh-huh.  Then there was another intense moment that most likely had physics majors fuming when the “transporter” found a highly unique manner of disposing of a bomb under his car while it was still moving.  Let’s just say that it involved ramping the vehicle at high speeds, having it rotate 360 degrees and – while rotating in mid-air – the driver was able to perfectly anchor the lower half so it came in contact with the hook of a giant crane, which easily nabbed the bomb.  Yup.  Sure.  Uh uh.

The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films - including this newest entry - works in much the same capacity, albeit in a much more grounded manner if I could be permitted to say that.  Sure, these films are not “incredible romps of complete and utter incredulity” as I defined TRANSPORTER 2 and the genre of Cinema of Incredulity, but they are not too far off.   Essentially, they exist for us to take in all of their highly improbable sights and engage excitedly in them without questioning their cadence.  Nitpickers of realism need not attend these films at the risk of spoiling the experience for the rest of us.

I remember moments in the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE from 1996 where that film’s cunning, resourceful, and determined hero Ethan Hunt is nearly killed by a helicopter that follows him (while he is on top of a bullet train) as he travels at tremendous velocity into the underground track tunnel that connects France to England.  How the plane managed to make it through without bursting into flames was beyond me, let alone how Hunt managed to stay aboard the roof of a train traveling hundreds of miles per hour.  Then there were moments in 2000’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II where both Hunt and his nemesis play chicken with motorbikes, which results in both of them hurling themselves off of them – while in motion – and they collide head and chest first.  How they did not collectively break all of the ribs, suffer terrible head traumas, and devastate any other pertinent bones in their bodies was beyond me.  Also, there was the business of the films' usage of high tech latex masks that allowed both heroes and villains to perfectly impersonate one another at key and highly convenient times.

Then – of course – there are also the immensely impossible but not entirely improbable missions that Hunt finds himself taking in these films.  These missions are the underlining hooks to lure the audience in.  The first film in the trilogy had Hunt and company in a remarkably convoluted plot where they must prevent the theft of a computer file that has vital information on all of America’s double agents.  They scheme was to steal the information first that involved them breaking into a top secret and incredibly secure government building that was so secure that even a temperature change in the room would set off an alarm.  The second film saw Hunt trapped in yet another macabre story that involved him trying to thwart the villains and – in the process – get an all-important antidote to a killer virus that the bad guys administered to his girlfriend.  To make matters worse, the girlfriend faced the threat of dying in less than 24 hours after infection, which meant that Hunt and his IMF colleagues had to pull some serious overtime.

Now comes the third MISSION and this time we see Hunt risk his life for his country (and fiancé) to discover the whereabouts of the infamous “Rabbit's Foot.”  What is The Rabbit's Foot?  Well, we never really know and by the end of the film the hero himself does not seem to have any clue as to its contents and/or significance.  All he knows is that (a) it’s of such fantastic importance that both he and antagonist of the film will stop at nothing to get it and (b) if he does not get his hands on it the bad guys will brutally murder his main squeeze.  And – in pure MI-style – Hunt must acquire this "Rabbit" while escaping explosions, halo after halo of gunfire, being beating beaten and tortured to a pulp, being captured by his own agency for traitorous offences, escaping the confines of his own agency, and finally having a particularly dangerous microchip surgically shoved up his brain through his nostril cavity.  Yes, this capsule is so nasty that it will explode inside his brain in less than five minutes and the only way to destroy it is by electrocuting it with the impulse of a defibrillator.  Using this device on a conscious person would most definitely stop one’s heart, but if Hunt must kill himself to get that gadget out of his noggin so he can grab the elusive Rabbit's Foot and save his girlfriend so they can all live happily ever after, then by God…he’ll do it!

Again, I discuss all of these details from the newest MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE film and from the past ones to illustrate my fondness for them, not contempt.  MI 3 is a wonderfully realized entertainment, a bruised knuckled, high-octane auctioneer that not only embraces incredulity, but asks us to do the very same with a sly smile on our face.  Skeptics that dissect these films for logical loopholes and harp on these films' lack of any discernable realism miss the point altogether.  MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III proudly continues this series’ determined and celebrated manner with which they ask audiences to suspend their disbelief at their sights.  Maybe “suspend” is improper word choice.  MI 3 asks us to hurtle over a Grand Canyon-sized crater of disbelief, and for that it is a gloriously realized bit of summer escapism.  As a film that is sort of the unofficial kickoff for the spring and summer movie season, this one is the type of effective, confidently mounted, adrenaline-rushed and pulse-pounding thriller that defines this period.  The film is gripping and suspenseful enough to garner our immediate involvement, but is also silly enough to have us leave with wide-eyed. 

The one thing that this new entry has going for it – much like the last few entries – is it’s decidedly different look, feel, and tone.  I very much appreciate this series’ ability to not be too slavish to it’s own aesthetic conventions.  The first film was directed by one of the masters of the thriller genre, Brian De Palma, and that film worked on pure levels of spy intrigue and tension.  The second film was helmed by John Woo.  He went for a much more action-oriented MI film that was much more attune to showcasing virtuoso action set pieces that were framed with that sort of quintessential Woo-ian manner of equating mayhem and fisticuffs to a fluid ballet of violence. 

Now in MI 3 we have another new director, another take on the Hunt character, and yet another story that is an incredible romp of complete and utter incredulity.  These films’ willingness to present the improbable is what links them together, but the key to this franchise’s staying power is how efficiently it crafts thrillers that are expertly independent of one another.  The sequels are not continuations, but almost crafty re-imaginings of the same characters and subject matter.  That’s the key to this series – each film works resourcefully and independently.  Sure, each film regurgitates some analogous elements, but they all feel fresh, a trait that is woefully lacking in many inferior action-laced sequels.  As far as third films in a series go, this MISSION film is one of the finest.

The most refreshing aspect of this MISSION is how the makers humanize the Hunt character as a whole.  He - in case you’re living under a rock - is played by your favorite resident scientologist and Katie Holmes loving nutcase, Tom Cruise.  People can bemoan his annoyingly pompous off camera personality, but there is no denying the fact that Cruise (as he does here and in the previous MISSION films) gives a thanklessly decent performance as a grounded and more vulnerable action hero (the press seems to forget in the maelstrom of attention they give him lately what a dependable and gifted actor he truly is).  This newest entry does an even better job than the other two films at presenting this character more in the realm of normalcy.  I mean, what does Ethan Hunt actually do while he is not working for a top-secret impossible mission force?  Well, at least in this film, he has aims to settle down with his newest girlfriend, Julia (Michelle Monaghan).  He wants to say goodbye to his mission days, even when his colleagues say he can’t.  Julia has no idea what he really does.  She thinks he’s a highway traffic control engineer.  She also loves the fact that he is a real hit at house parties, maybe because he has an incredible ability to read lips (as in one funny moment) where he knows exactly what a group of gossiping house partiers are saying about him from across the room.  You just know from this scene that is incredible gift for lip-reading will pay off much better later.

Anyhoo’, during this party he receives an oddly suspicious phone call which sees him having a rendezvous with his handler at – where else? – the 7-11.  They discuss what makes for the best Slurpee and then do away with pleasantries to discuss a larger dilemma.  It seems that Hunt's former protégée (the usually irrepressibly cute, but now gun happy Keri Russell) has been captured by a viscous and cruel arms dealer named Davian (played in a performance of malevolent, slimy ooze by 2005 Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Berlin.  His handler John (Billy Crudip) asks Hunt for his help to save Russell’s character.  He balks (he would rather just stay home and propose to his wife), but his conscious gets the better of him and he rounds up some of his old troupes (like Luther, played by Ving Rhames) and newcomers (played by MATCH POINT’s Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q). 

Needless to say, their operation is not successful, but it does reveal that there is a secret mole in IMF (which we finally get to see in great detail).  IMF head boss Brassel (Lawrence Fishburne) would love to find out who the mole is, as would Hunt and company.  Soon, Hunt finds himself in the Vatican in an effort to capture Davian and acquire the ultimate "MacGuffin" of the film, The Rabbit's Foot (lay film goers should note that the "MacGuffin" was a Hitchcock coined term for a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story, but the details as to what it actually is or entails is not important).  Things sort of go south real fast when the heroes (in an extraordinarily deceptive plan) capture Davian and later lose him.  After his escape (in one of the best, breakneck action scenes of recent memory) Davian eventually manages to kidnap Julia and use her as bait.  IMF did manage to get The Rabbit's Foot and it now appears that Davian will force Hunt to re-acquire it for him or else he and Julia can cancel their nuptials. 

This MISSION film does many things absolutely right.  Firstly, it further develops Hunt’s character by given him more of an emotional arc.  His new relationship with his girlfriend is sweet and tender and it gives him plausible and palpable motivations later on.  The previous incarnations of the character were more broad and larger than life, but in this MISSION we feel more fully for his character and have larger personal stakes in his story.  Secondly, the casting of Hoffman as the villain is a masterstroke move as he is presented (rather wisely) as a truly creepy sociopath and less a cardboard cutout of a villain (like the bad guys in the first two MI films, these men are as ruthless as they are intelligent and resourceful).  Thirdly, the film opens with an absolute bang with an amazingly tense and breathtaking pre-credits scene that starts the film with a moment that occurs – narratively – far later in the film.  What this scene does is instantly snag us into the thick of the story.  Afterwards, the story goes backwards in time several days so we get a chance to see what led up to this shocking moment.  It's a highly effective technique that easily garners our buy-in to the story.

These able-minded plot touches were a key staple of some of the best episodes of the first two seasons of ALIAS, a TV show that was created by J.J. Abrams, who directed and co-write MI 3.  In hindsight - especially if you've watched ALIAS - this MISSION film is Abrams dream project.  Fans of that show will, no doubt, see some very familiar elements that made that show’s first two seasons some of the best of what TV had to offer.  After directors like David Fincher and Joe Carnahan departed, Abrams seems like a highly obvious choice to helm a MISSION film (his ALIAS was essentially a TV equivalent of this spy/espionage genre).  Being that this is his first feature film (and the largest budget – reported to be over $180 million – to be given to a rookie filmmaker) Abrams does an exemplary job here.  From a technical prerogative, MI 3 is an amazingly assured two hours of incredibly sustained tension and eye-popping spectacle.  As promised, this MISSION entry facilitates this series’ requirement for unrelenting and improbable havoc.  Those wanting Ibsen or Chekhov...flee to the exits.  Those wanting brain implanted, exploding microchips and White Rabbit MacGuffins, stay in your seats, but with you hands either clenched tightly to your chairs or your respective dates for the evening.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III is a film that is indicative of the best of the type of slick, professional, and frantically energized summer films that the season is made for.  Sure, this newest entry does – on more than one occasion – look very much like a regurgitated and elongated episode of J.J. Abrams' own ALIAS, but amplifying the best elements of his own TV pedigree for the big screen are welcome here.  MI 3 has wall-to-wall kinetic action that more than facilitates the quota for these films and it intrigues us immediately in its nifty and crafty espionage plot that is as fun and quirky as it is exciting.  As a worthy entry into this highly lucrative franchise, MI 3 may be the most satisfying and electrifying of the trio and is a wholly satisfying benchmark work for the summer film season that packs a lot of macho and highly exuberant gusto. 

In short, it's a wonderfully realized romp of incredulity, indeed.

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