J.J. who, you say? “M:I-3” might be his first movie, but Abrams is nowhere near a rookie behind the camera, having helmed the pilots for “Alias” and “Lost”, some of the most exciting hours of filmed entertainment I’ve ever seen. I was eager to find out what he could do when not restrained by the limitations of television budgets and schedules. Alas, the larger scope is a mixed blessing. While we do get almost two hours of non-stop explosive action, it doesn’t register as intensely as the more modest set pieces in “Alias” because we don’t really care about the characters.
Again, I love Cruise and in the few quiet moments, he managed to make me believe in his character’s inner turmoil. You see, when we meet again with Ethan Hunt, he’s retired from active Impossible Mission Force duty and settled down with a sweet little honey (Michelle Monaghan) he’s about to marry. But when one of the agents (Keri Russell) he trained is captured, he has to make a choice between maintaining the sanctity of his happy home life and returning into the field. Worse, he’s forced to lie to his fiancée, who has no idea he’s a super spy. So far so good; nothing profound, but we can feel for Hunt, who’s finally found some peace but is drawn back into a world of danger. Unfortunately, this is all the character development we’ll ever get.
From the rescue mission in Berlin until the final showdown in Shanghai, “M:I-3” is basically one chase / shoot-out / stunt after another. Of course, Abrams doesn’t have 20+ hours of continuity to make the storytelling richer like on TV, but the supporting cast is particularly unmemorable here. Returning Ving Rhames doesn’t do much but patting Ethan on the back or reprimanding him, and newcomers Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers are only asked to look good (which they do, especially Q in the red dress she wears during the Vatican scene). Laurence Fishburne also shows up as the typical Stupid Chief, to more or less amusing effect, with Billy Crudup as his second in command and Simon Pegg as the computer guy (in other words, Marshall).
The most promising part, as is often the case, is the villain, a black market trafficker who provides WMDs to Middle Eastern terrorists and North Korea. Played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Owen Davian is delightfully evil… But he’s barely in the movie! Seriously, that great scene in the trailer where he taunts Hunt (“Who are you? Do you have a wife? A girlfriend? Whoever she is, I’m gonna find her. I’m gonna hurt her. And then I’m going to kill you right in front of her.”)? That’s practically half of Hoffman’s performance! Talk about wasting an opportunity – it’s like having Hans Gruber in your flick but only giving him three scenes. Furthermore, since most of the action scenes don’t directly involve the villain and the IMF team members are blanks, the only investment we have in them is watching Tom Cruise run and jump around.
Still, said action is pretty entertaining on its own, be it the helicopter chase through a field of windmill generators, the bridge attack or the skyscraper swing/parachute jump. But then again, it never gets quite over the top enough for me. When Rhames says that “there’s a point where bold becomes stupid”, I wanted to yell GET STUPID! I keep saying that I love Cruise, but he’s more fitted to suspenseful break-ins (like in De Palma’s original) or operatic ballets of bullets, motorcycles and white doves (like in Woo’s instalment). The wild ride Abrams had in mind, which mirrors True Lies in many aspects, needed a Schwarzenegger-style protagonist: a big, dumb, macho brute who doesn’t give a second thought to killing dozens of people and having everything explode around him.
Basically, “Mission: Impossible III” suffers from being neither as character-driven nor as mindlessly badass as it could have been. Falling somewhere between those two extremes, the movie remains enjoyable, but not as much as it would have been if it went all out one way or the other.