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Mission: Impossible III

The thrills come mad hot and wicked sweet in Mission: Impossible III, the movie to beat this summer in the race to push your pulse rate past the danger zone. And please don’t ask if the plot makes sense. It didn’t the last two times either. Here’s what counts: Tom Cruise is back as secret agent Ethan Hunt and he takes it to the limit — running, jumping, punching, kicking, freefalling and flashing his laser-beam peepers with an intensity that could cut steel. But Ethan doesn’t faze weapons trader Owen Damien, the most deliciously vile movie villain in ages as played with dry wit and hardcore menace by the newly Oscared Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a kick to watch Hoffman play hellboy to Cruise’s action hombre and you can believe the movie is all the better for it. Having said that, the true star of M:i:III is director and co-writer J.J. Abrams. Best known for his TV work, notably on Alias and Lost, Abrams takes to feature directing like the tabloids take to Cruise. He’s all over it. With a reported budget of $185 million, M:i:III is the most expensive movie ever undertaken by a first-time director. After David Fincher (Seven) and Joe Carnahan (Narc) left the project, producer Cruise put his trust in new guy Abrams, who does him proud.

It’s nuts trying to untangle the plot concocted by Abrams and his Alias collaborators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. Here’s as far as I’ll go: Ethan has found the right girl to marry in Julie (Michelle Monaghan, a star in the making), who knows diddly about his job at IMF (Impossible Mission Force for the uninitiated). It’s love that makes Ethan vulnerable to Owen, who threatens to put a bullet in Julie’s pretty head if Ethan doesn’t give him some damn rabbit’s foot. OK, enough, you get the picture.

You should also know that Ving Rhames returns to watch Ethan’s back as Luther Strickwell. (Remember how the rug in The Big Lebowski tied the Dude’s room together? Rhames does the same for this series). New faces include a hard-ass Laurence Fishburne as Brassel, Ethan’s boss, Billy Crudup as Musgrave, the boss’s wingman, and new team members: Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers of Match Point), Zhen (Maggie Q of modeling fame), and Lindsey (Keri Russell of Felicity, another Abrams TV staple). This is one director who does more than keep the actors from bumping into each other as they wear disguises, speak various languages and play daredevil. Going way beyond the call of action flick duty, Abrams gives each character moments that resonate. If this is just favorable ruboff from Lost, don’t knock it. It helps to give a damn about a IMFers before they get blown away.

Abrams is sincere about wanting the stunts to serve the story, but don’t expect Chekhov. This is a film franchise built on the principle of the unbroken rush. Look, there’s Ethan leaping over a gap on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Over there, he’s scaling a rooftop in Shanghai. And catch him on a speedboat chase on the Tiber with a quick stop at the Vatican to steal the Da Vinci code (just kidding about that last part). Cruise doesn’t so much act as treat the film as an Olympic event, doing many of the stunts himself. On the debit side, the movie — should you decide to accept it — peaks in its first hour. The surprise ending is way too easy to see coming. And there’s a sappiness to the romantic climax that strains our goodwill. Plus, Hoffman isn’t onscreen nearly enough. And the disguise gimmicks, especially Cruise wearing a Hoffman mask, now feel like unconvincing relics from the old Mission: Impossible series that ended thirty-three years ago. Bury the nostalgia. Like the rap twist Kanye West puts into the film’s classic theme, this movie is best when it stirs it up.

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