Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Mission Impossible Series: Mission Impossible III (2006)

Mission Impossible III (2006)
Directed by: J. J. Abrams.
Written by: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and J. J. Abrams based on the television series by Bruce Geller.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Owen Davian), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Billy Crudup (John Musgrave), Michelle Monaghan (Julia Meade), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Declan Gormley), Keri Russell (Lindsey Farris), Maggie Q (Zhen Lei), Simon Pegg (Benjamin "Benji" Dunn), Eddie Marsan (Brownway), Laurence Fishburne (Theodore Brassel), Bahar Soomekh (Davian's Translator), Aaron Paul (Rick Meade).
In retrospect, Mission Impossible III represents what would become pattern for director JJ Abrams. This was his first feature as a director, and since then he has gone on to direct the first (and second) films of the rebooted Star Trek and the first film in the reboot of Star Wars. Abrams, it seems, is the director you bring into a seemingly dormant franchise to make a solid, respectful reboot of the franchise to gets fans interested again – before handing the reins to someone who is going to take the franchise to greater heights. It took six years – the longest gap in the Mission Impossible series – to make this third film, and its clear from the start that Abrams goals are much more modest than either of the films that came before it. The film pretty much jettisons the overly complicated plot of the first film, and the operatic excess of the second film. It tries to ground the film in a more relatable emotional register than the previous films, and also return the series to more of the team style rather than it being the Ethan Hunt show – which is basically what the second film was. The film is solid and entertaining from beginning to end – it also has the most memorable villain of any of the Mission Impossible films. And yet, looking back at it 12 years later, I do have to wonder if anyone would remember the film all that fondly had it not been a part of this franchise – and if that franchise had not achieved the heights it did with the subsequent films. In a way, Mission Impossible III feels kind of like those filler episodes in serialized television – necessary to get where you’re going, without being the best the series has to offer.
When this film opens, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has not retired from the IMF – but he’s no longer on active duty. His job is now to train the agents before they head out into the field. He’s engaged to a nurse – Julia (Michelle Monaghan) and wants to settle down. But he’s called back in because one of the agents he trained – Lindsey Ferris (Keri Russell) has gone missing in Brazil – they think she has been taken by the man they assigned her to monitor, arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – and she is their only connection to him. They want her back – and because Hunt loves Lindsey like a little sister, he agrees to come back. And once he’s back, he’s back all the way – Owen wouldn’t let him walk away if he wanted to.
In many ways, the plot of Mission Impossible III is the simplest of any of the movies. Owen wants something called the Rabbit’s Foot – and will do anything to get it, including of course kidnapping Julia to force Ethan to get him what he wants. What is the Rabbit’s Foot? Well, it’s basically a McGuffin – the movie never even bothers to explain what it is, what it will do, or why anyone would want it. It doesn’t matter – everyone wants it, so it’s important. Abrams jettisons the rest, keeping things relatively simple – which works. What doesn’t work as well (spoiler alert, although I’ll try to be vague) is that the film essentially repeats what happened in the first film in terms of Hunt’s superiors (in this case Laurence Fishburne and Billy Crudup), trying to shock you by revealing which one is really the bad guy – and this time it doesn’t much work. It also would have helped a little bit more if the film had taken time to do something more with Monaghan’s Julia instead of making her yet another wife/girlfriend of the male protagonist whose role is to be put in jeopardy to motivate the hero. It’s a rather tired plot trope in action movies in general – and in no way is Monaghan given the same level of action to do as Thandie Newton had in Mission Impossible II (nor is her chemistry with Cruise anywhere near as good – although that could be a function of how little time they spend together.
Still though, all that feels like nitpicking a movie that in general is highly enjoyable. Hoffman is a huge upgrade over every other Mission Impossible villain to this point in the series – he exudes menace and malevolence, and seems to be having a great time in the role. Perhaps this was a merely a paycheque role for him – lord knows he did enough stage work and indie film work to merit taking a big payday once in a while – but it certainly doesn’t seem like it. I also appreciated that he didn’t seem to have a big complicated goal here – he wanted it because he could sell it and make a lot of money.
Besides, this series has always been at its best in the action sequences – and this film has some great ones – from the raid to try and rescue Lindsay, to the bridge action sequence, to – of course – the big break-in in Shanghai to steal the Rabbit’s Foot, Abrams generally does a good job with them. I’m not sure any are as jaw dropping as the best in this series – but all are technically proficient, and a hell of a lot of fun.
Overall, like Mission Impossible II, I think Mission Impossible III is a notch below the other films in this series. It’s good, it’s fun, it well made, it features Cruise at his determined best, and Hoffman as the series best villain. But it isn’t particularly memorable. It’s a fun, good action movie – and not a lot else.

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