Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is battered, beaten, and broken. He begs for his wife’s life. He promises anything. He’ll do anything. Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) looks straight into his eyes, points a gun at his wife’s head, and fires anyway. Cue the Mission: Impossible theme music and cue writer/director J.J. Abrams’ (“Lost”, “Alias”) triumphant transition from gripping television to gripping feature filmmaking.
This newest Mission finds Tom Cruise’s Hunt semi-retired and on the verge of getting married. He has quit the field and taken a job as a trainer at the IMF. His wife to be thinks he studies traffic patterns. Since watching Ethan educate newbies isn’t much fun, he receives a self-destructing message that sends him back on active duty. He gets with his old buddy Luther (Ving Rhames), assembles a new team, and sets out after his target: a vicious arms dealer named Davian.
One of the most impressive things about Abrams’ take on the Mission franchise is that he finds a way to make it more of a team effort rather than the one man Tom Cruise show the other movies default to. This is the first of these films to even sniff the feel of the old television series which started it all. The best scene in this or any of these movies features Hunt’s strike force invading the Vatican as a group, putting to use all the gadgets and team sneaking Abrams’ script can muster. Don’t get me wrong Cruise is still clearly the focus, and especially towards its end the movie becomes almost entirely about him. There’s still plenty of Tom Cruise sprinting through the city solo, but this movie isn’t just about Tom Cruise running around by himself.
Speaking of Tom Cruise, he’s good. I mean really good. I don’t think he’s ever really turned in a bad performance, but he’s more in his element here than he’s been anywhere recently. The guy is money, and seeing him running through a canal at breakneck speed is nearly as fun as watching him fly a fighter jet into the danger zone was twenty years ago. When he’s not pulling fight duty, he’s even better. Domesticated Ethan Hunt has an easy air about him. Watching him try to explain traffic patterns to his wife’s friends works, it’s believable that at least at home, he’s been tamed. When on duty, it helps that he has a great foil here in the form of Hoffman. He’s dark, there’s death in eyes and destruction in his words when he faces Ethan. A bad guy like this is exactly what’s been missing from the Bond franchise.
MI3 has a lot in common with the last great Arnold Schwarzenegger movie True Lies. A spy hides his identity from his wife; his wife gets dragged inadvertently into his world. But where True Lies played a lot of that comedically, Mission: Impossible 3 takes it deadly serious. Still, if you’ve seen True Lies you’ll have a pretty good idea where this one ends up. If you’re going to borrow ideas for your action movie, taking a few cues from James Cameron isn’t a bad way to go. Abrams’ borrows liberally from some of Cameron’s biggest action bits, and then betters them to raise the stakes on Ethan Hunt as he’s ripped apart over the course of the film.
The movie’s not perfect. In his quest to bring teamwork back to Mission: Impossible Abrams sometimes makes the mistake of focusing on the film’s ancillary team members a little too much. Did we really need to hear about random team member number four’s lost cat? Probably not. Teamwork yes, sappy stories no. But those are minor issues in a movie that cranks up the heat right from the start, and then lets things boil over and burn. Mission: Impossible III is so superior to its predecessors that it’s almost unfair to burden it with the name Mission: Impossible. Where the first movie was slow and sometimes boring, MI3 is non-stop, heart-pumping adrenaline. Where the second movie was slow motion flexing and zero plot development, MI3 is taut, suspenseful and sharp edged; the action is fast and the story perfectly tuned. This is J.J. Abrams’ feature film directorial debut, but he steps into big blockbuster filmmaking as if he’s been doing it all along. With “Lost” and “Alias” as his background, maybe he has been.