J.J. Abrams makes his feature directing debut with the third instalment in Tom Cruise’s spy saga. Is it the best mission yet?
Who made it?: J.J. Abrams (Director/Co-Writer), Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci (Producers), Paula Wagner, Tom Cruise (Producers), Paramount Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames, Billy Crudup, Michelle Monaghan, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Keri Russell, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg.
IMDb rating: 6.8/10.
The mission allotted to the executives at Paramount Pictures sounded impossible. Their assignment? Resurrect Tom Cruise’s lucrative spy franchise which was left in shambles following the stylish but hollow second instalment. It would seem that six years away from the material rejuvenated both Cruise and the creative team. After going through several directors who walked away prior to filming (including David Fincher), Cruise recruited hot television commodity J.J. Abrams to overhaul the ailing series and start afresh from both a screenplay and a directorial perspective. Luckily, the gamble paid off excellently. Action franchises tend to considerably decline in quality by the third chapter, from Beverly Hills Cop to Lethal Weapon to the belated Terminator 3, but no such sign of fatigue taints Mission: Impossible III; an involving action extravaganza served with wit and panache, which wraps its fingers around a viewer’s throat during an intense opening scene and rarely loosens its grip over the two-hour dash to the end credits.
For this third film, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has moved away from the high-risk missions of the previous movies to undertake a desk job (of sorts) training new agents for the field at IMF (Impossible Missions Force). On top of this, Ethan is on the verge of settling down in his private life: he’s engaged to a nurse named Julia (Michelle Monaghan) who’s blissfully unaware of his actual day job. But when one of his former trainees (Keri Russell) is captured while investigating powerful arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Ethan renounces his semi-retirement to rescue her. However, the task steadily evolves into the larger job of pursuing Davian and preventing him from placing a biological weapon (codenamed the Rabbit’s Foot) into the wrong hands (i.e. non-American hands).
M:I-III is a brutal, intense, edgy action-thriller that propels the series forward in a fresh new direction. The first two M:Imovies were well-mounted displays of their respective director’s area of expertise (Brian De Palma’s penchant for intricate scenarios played out in silence, and John Woo’s talent for operatic slo-mo shootouts, respectively), but neither shed a great deal of light on Ethan Hunt. Thankfully, Abrams and his writers rectified this. Mission: Impossible III features a fair share of exploding cars and shootouts, but it’s more than mere eye candy, with an eye towards Ethan’s personal life and numerous stunt sequences which place the various protagonists in believable situations of danger. Here, it’s possible to care about the characters and their mission. Naturally, at the end of the day, it’s still a big-budget Hollywood production, but heavens me, the constant and very genuine feeling that Ethan might not make it becomes a concern as tension mounts with unsettling speed. Also interesting is that this M:I story leaves room for teamwork. Sure, it’s still Tom Cruise’s show, but the filmmakers allow the team to play a bigger role in the action.
Being in charge of a well-publicised $150 million blockbuster for his feature film debut, Abrams delivers the goods with a wallop; displaying a strong eye for dramatic tension and gritty action that’s fluid and exciting. He simply directs the hell out of the action set-pieces, with daring camerawork and sharp editing (courtesy of Alias vets Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey) that belies the director’s inexperience with big-screen adventures. The little moments are equally inspired, too. Action flicks tend to contain boring “in-between stuff” (anything that doesn’t involve the action bits, that is), but not so in Mission: Impossible III. Acting is uniformly strong and Abrams shows a talent for building compelling momentum. It’s difficult to believe this is Abrams’ first outing as a feature-film director; he exudes a laudable confidence that a number of established filmmakers have no clue how to achieve (such as Uwe Boll, Rob Cohen and Joel Schumacher, just to name a few).
Think whatever you wish about Cruise’s increasingly outspoken religious convictions or his tabloid-fodder personal life, but he’s a box office star for a good reason. His performance in Mission: Impossible III ranks among his very best work as an actor. He truly puts his body on the line in terms of stunts and fight choreography, but it’s in the non-action scenes where Cruise truly delivers. One can sense the pain and anguish of the moment, and Cruise provides the necessary conviction to make every character interchange highly compelling. During the opening scene alone, he passes through a wide swath of emotions (from bewildered to angry to terrified) in mere seconds. He never fails to sell the legitimacy of a scene, no matter how implausible it may seem. From the outset, it’s clear Cruise was dedicated 100% to the movie.
Luckily, the rest of the cast is equally strong. Ving Rhames is his usual self, playing Luther Stickell with a spot-on mix of wit and sincerity. However, the late Hoffman is the movie’s standout. Owen Davian isn’t a foam-at-the-mouth lunatic or a suave, cultured sociopath – he’s a deadly serious, brutal badass with no compunction about killing an innocent person. While Davian is unable to measure up to the best of the modern-era bad guys, he’s far better than the cookie-cutter, run-of-the-mill antagonists typically featured in big-budget blockbusters. And yet, for all the movie’s grittiness and suspense, there’s a light side too. Comic relief is present in the form of Simon Pegg playing a jittery techie who suggests the Rabbit’s Foot could just be “a really expensive bunny appendage.”
Despite clocking in at two hours, Mission: Impossible III never noticeably drags because it’s excellently-paced and moves with the speed of a bullet. It isn’t perfect – it’s not necessarily deep, the hero’s wife/girlfriend is predictably placed in jeopardy, and it would’ve worked better as a hardcore R-rated actioner, but it remains an intelligently-realised and amazingly-rendered action fare that’s refreshing to witness after all the cartoonish, dumbed-down fodder which has been passing as mainstream popcorn cinema over recent years. M:I-III is also, quite convincingly, the best of the Mission: Impossible film series to date.
The famous “bridge scene” is easily one of the greatest action set-pieces ever.
- With a budget of $150 million, this is the most expensive movie ever undertaken by a first-time feature film director.
- To promote the film, Paramount rigged 4,500 randomly selected Los Angeles Times vending boxes with digital audio players which would play the theme song when the door was opened. The audio players did not always stay concealed, however, and in many cases came loose and fell on top of the stack of newspapers in plain view, with the result that they were widely mistaken for bombs. Police bomb squads detonated a number of the vending boxes and even temporarily shut down a veterans’ hospital in response to the apparent “threat.” Despite these problems, Paramount and The LA Times opted to leave the audio players in the boxes until two days after the movie’s opening.
- As the production could do nothing about inquisitive crowds watching them while they were filming in Rome, they actually set up a phony second unit a little further away, hired several girls in bikinis and several older women dressed as nuns and pretended to be filming takes for the film, while the main unit got on with their business largely undisturbed.
For the three city-wide premieres in New York, Tom Cruise was driven from location to location on the top of a fire engine, by helicopter, motorbike, car and the subway system, where he had an entire subway train all to himself. It was rented for an estimated $12,000.