Mission: Impossible III (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Mission: Impossible III provides lots of action, but too little excitement. It generates lots of pyrotechnics, but too little heat. And it offers lots of Tom Cruise, but too little Ethan Hunt. In short, if you're yearning for a flashy, leave-your-brain-at-the-door summer movie that never does anything interesting or challenging, Mission: Impossible III has what you're looking for. It's loud, raucous, frenetic, and blows things up real good. But it's testosterone without adrenaline, danger without suspense. Maybe it's foolish to be disappointed by a pure popcorn movie, but as I walked out of this film, I felt it had failed in its mission of pure entertainment.

When an IMF agent (Keri Russell) is captured while investigating arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Berlin, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) comes out of semi-retirement to rescue her. He does this at the request of his old friend, John Musgrave (Billy Crudip), and in spite of the fact that he's about to be married to his girlfriend, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a down-to-earth nurse who knows nothing about Ethan's real job. Ethan's team consists of old friend Luther (Ving Rhames), and newcomers Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen (Maggie Q). Their operation is not entirely successful, but it reveals that there may be a mole in a top IMF position, and it leads to a more dangerous assignment: capture Davian while he's attending a function at the Vatican.

Mission: Impossible III does a lot of things right, but it does nearly as many things wrong. (Note: I'm not going to discuss gaping logic holes and other plot contrivances here. They sort of go with the territory.) To start on the positive side, it's hard to imagine a better villain than the one presented by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Owen Davian isn't a foam-at-the-mouth lunatic or a suave, cultured sociopath. He's a deadly serious, brutal badass who has no compunction about killing an innocent person. While Davian doesn't measure up to the best of the modern era bad guys, Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber in Die Hard, he's much better than the cookie cutter, run-of-the-mill antagonists that thrillers like this typically employ. Mission: Impossible III also makes Ethan a little more human than in the previous installments, at least to start with.

The film opens with an amazing, taut two-minute pre-credits teaser that leaves the audience desperate for more. Unfortunately, this is an excerpt from much later in the story, so we have to wait about 90 minutes before learning how the cliffhanger is resolved. The upside of this is that Mission: Impossible III has an incredible hook, but the downside is that viewers may be irritated by having to endure so much exposition to get back to the point where they came in. It certainly kills the suspense and tension during the movie's first three-quarters. Mission: Impossible III doesn't get up to speed until we're back where we started from.

Attempts at character development fall flat. Giving Ethan a fiancé (who becomes his wife during the course of the film) is supposed to provide him with an emotional arc, but it doesn't work. That's primarily because the scenes between Cruise and Michelle Monaghan are perfunctory. We never get to know Julia, and the romance sputters. It's not so much an issue of poor chemistry as much as it is an issue of the two characters not having enough scenes together for there to be any meaningful interaction. It's hard to develop human relationships when the filmmaker isn't willing to slow down the momentum for a moment.

Cruise is a problem, as well. Too often during Mission: Impossible III, we're seeing the actor, not the character. With larger-than-life personalities like Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne, this wasn't an issue, since their screen personalities coincided with what the public perceived to be their real personalities. But Cruise has been vilified and ridiculed in numerous public forums during the past year, and it hurts his alter ego every time the actor proves incapable of submerging himself beneath the character. Cruise didn't have this problem in War of the Worlds, but it is occasionally an issue here.

This is the directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, a hot TV commodity (Felicity, Alias, Lost) making his transition to the big screen. From a purely technical standpoint, Abrams does a competent job. The chase scenes and other action sequences are presented with the proper level of spectacle. The globe-trotting locations are given their due - we see plenty of Berlin, Rome, and Shanghai. But there's an intangible missing. Things explode, characters take death-defying plunges, guns fire round after round after round, helicopters move in for the kill, and none of it is all that exciting. Maybe it's because we've seen it before. Maybe it's because a TV show like 24 does this kind of thing on a weekly basis, and does it better (although not as spectacularly). And maybe it's because we're not as invested in Ethan Hunt as we need to be to care. Even Mission: Impossible III's single shocking moment turns out to be a cheat.

Watching this film, I kept thinking of a cheap James Bond rip-off. There are the gadgets, the stunts, and the world locations. Laurence Fishburne does a credible M and Simon Pegg is Q. Michelle Monaghan is pretty enough to be a Bond girl, although she's dressed up more like the girl next door. And, like the least successful of the 007 features, it doesn't gel. This Mission satisfies more than the original, but is a few steps behind the first sequel. As summer fare, it's okay, and there's enough flash to justify a trip to a theater. But all the hype can't hide the fact that Mission: Impossible III is a routine action feature, and is unlikely to be regarded as anything better.

Mission: Impossible III (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2006-05-05
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1