Review: “Mission: Impossible III”

Despite being an improvement on the woeful second entry in the franchise, the third “Mission: Impossible” isn’t much better than that John Woo misfire, even with the admirable talent involved. Still, whilst it may be a rather ordinary way to kick off the summer film season, it does manage to entertain in parts and provide a somewhat different take on various aspects of the series canon.

The actors are fine, the production values impressive, and the direction is pretty solid – yet the story is very generic, the action itself surprisingly bland and the twists laughably predictable. Most of the elements are there to give us a great action spectacle but ultimately deliver just two hours of dumb and easily forgettable popcorn thrills that are more John Rambo than James Bond in tone. For the easily pleased that may be enough, but fans of serious spy movies should certainly look elsewhere.

The most notable difference here is the hiring of J.J. Abrams behind the camera for his first movie feature. Abrams, creator of spy thriller series “Alias” and mystery/castaway show “Lost” (two of my favourite shows in recent years), brings his sensibilities to the table – namely delivering a story that’s big on both action and character.

The film finally does one thing right that the previous two have missed – namely exploring the background of Cruise’s character, and giving him a personal stake in events thanks to a new girlfriend. Also, whilst it doesn’t pull it off as well as the early parts of the first Mission: impossible, it does manage to do a decent job of making the film about a team at work again rather than simply portraying Ethan Hunt as a one man crusader.

However, the end product also shows up some of Abrams weaknesses, or more notably that of his collaborative screenwriters Roberto Orci & Alex Klutzman. The writing pair also penned recent action-packed disappointments “The Island” and “The Legend of Zorro”, two films that weren’t too bad but certainly far from what they could’ve been (M:I-3 is in essentially the same league).

With such a focus on character there is next to nothing in the way of actual plot, rather a series of sequences designed to nab someone (Hoffman) or something (the Rabbit’s Foot) with none of it really paying off. That’s not too much of a problem if the character development is good but its not, with side characters from the head of IMF to the other team members proving as flat as tacks.

Ethan Hunt may have more of a personal stake, but actual looks into his character are surface examinations at best (he attends house parties, real insight there) or recycles elements of the standard ‘burnt out’ spy story done countless times before in better films and shows.

At times there’s some moments of good creativity – the bad guy is a refreshingly frank and believable nasty, and the key element (a device called the Rabbit’s Foot) is never made the central element of the story with the focus always kept on Cruise’s personal stakes. Also, despite a quiet first hour in which action fans will be twiddling their thumbs, once the pace gets going it never really slows down.

Yet the underlying motive of those involved seems dumb in any real context, whilst an obvious red herring leads to a very obvious twist that quite frankly is a disappointment considering some of the clever ones Abrams has pulled off in the past. There’s a few points where the movie could’ve taken some real chances but in every case it dangles the possibility and then pulls back – sometimes to the point of cheese (most notably the laughable “The Abyss” style CPR scene at the end). On top of that the assorted subplots heavily cannibalise other and better works – there’s pieces of “True Lies” (wife/girlfriend deceived, jet missile attack on bridge), a wee bit of James Bond, and of course lots of scenes harkening back to key episodes of “Alias” – especially the pilot

Take the most obvious – the film opens with a pre-credits flash forward to the climax of the film to immediately build up tension. Its a technique that worked on the small screen with Jennifer Garner and certainly starts the film off with a bang, but then you realise we know the outcome therefore many of the action sequences of the film are robbed of any suspense or tension. At least in “Alias”, especially in the early seasons when it was at its peak, the frantic heist sequences built into the series mythology and were all leading towards something bigger, whilst the emotional entanglements of its characters were twisted and complex.

In here the action doesn’t lead much to anything, and the only emotional bond is between the hero and his lady (which feels decidedly on the cold side as the pair have zero chemistry). Only one sequence in particular, with the gang breaking into Vatican City to kidnap Hoffman, really works because its about cleverness and athleticism far more than yet another shootout (of which this film has FAR too many) or another piece of machinery exploding (so many fireballs its easy to lose count).

The cast isn’t too shabby, most notably Hoffman as the film’s villain. Given about one third the screen time of Cruise and spending most of the film relegated to standing around, he really only gets two sequences to actually be involved – the aforementioned Vatican kidnap and subsequent interrogation on a plane, and the final torture and confrontation sequence with Cruise and his girlfriend in some rundown Shanghai houses.

Yet in those few scant minutes he gives a sharp darkness to the character of Davian, a whip smart but brutish thug who doesn’t deliver one-liners or clever speeches, opting to essentially kick the crap out of his enemies and will do anything to get what he wants. Its certainly not a legendary bad guy along Hans Gruber lines make no mistake, but as these sort of films go it’s better than the usual type because its kept refreshingly simple and realistic.

Unfortunately he’s the only one who does leave an impression as such. Cruise is exactly like he was in the other films, there’s no denying the guy has charisma and is always committed to whatever performance he gives – yet maybe the media hype does take its toll as you just don’t feel like rooting for him much in this. On top of that his character spends most of the film reacting more than working on the offensive which makes him a hard hero to get behind. Not helping is Monaghan, who did such great work in last year’s “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang”, being relegated to an almost frigid cardboard cutout love interest who’s only good scene is an almost comedic bit of violence at the end.

Fishburne sleeps his way through the role of the somewhat tough but fair boss, his only memorable trait is one conference scene where he gets to spout some of the few clever lines in the film. Rhames fares better and makes his Luther character an enjoyable sidekick with personality – unlike fellow team members Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers who just blankly run around looking pretty. Crudup turns an old friend/case officer part into something with a bit more bite, and Simon Pegg does the best he can with an underwritten comical geek technician. Finally, Keri Russell proves surprisingly impressive as a kick ass young female agent.

Abrams direction is quite different than expected (much more John Woo-esque and grounded in gritty reality than his more stylised TV shows) and for a first time feature director very impressive in terms of visual bang on screen. Yet you go back and see some of the “Lost” and “Alias” episodes he helmed and, maybe it was because of network deadlines, but there’s certainly a tighter and smoother feel to them in not just look but how they unraveled their stories and characters.

At times a few too many close ups with the camera annoyingly jerking about “Blair Witch” style betray his small screen origins, however at others there’s some great wide shots of the locations or clever trick visuals following Cruise running down a street or standing precariously on a rooftop. The score, especially towards the end, is very reminiscent of his TV shows yet they work in the film’s context. Kanye West’s closing titles theme leaves little impression.

All up its rather average, much like the rest of the series, and this is coming from a big time fan of Abrams work and spy thrillers of all kinds. The first one, for all its problems and somewhat ridiculous third act, was entertaining and very rewatchable – although I’m sure it hasn’t aged well. The second was slower and not as interesting as this, but under Woo’s tutelage looked and was edited in a much more cinematic way.

This will not be seen as a disappointment like the last one was, but its not much of an advance either even if it is in the right direction. The hiring of Abrams was a good choice, but with more time spent on writing it and less involvement on Cruise’s part behind-the-scenes would’ve likely yielded a proper thriller that could’ve really kick started the series in a whole new way instead of what we’ve got – just another ordinary dumb Michael Bay-esque blowout with more bullets than brains.

Action fans will get a kick out of all the big explosions, but will be impatient with much of the first hour. Spy thriller fans will be let down by the sheer stupidity of the script, even as they are impressed by what’s some obvious on-location filming. Hoffman’s scenes, the Vatican sequence, the Shanghai building stunt and to a lesser extent the bridge escape are all enjoyable moments of mainstream action movie making, its a shame the framework supporting them wasn’t as well staged. Check out the first few seasons of “Alias” on DVD for cleverer and more thrilling hi-tech spy games from Mr. Abrams.