Cruise Control

Washington City Paper | May 15, 2006
Though action is obviously the raison d’être of Mission: Impossible III, it’s a film in which it’s much more important that the acting be solid. And it is: Philip Seymour Hoffman recalls neither a tubby loser nor a lisping effete. Keri Russell, forever Felicity no more, is a believable secret agent. Oh, and Tom Cruise (maybe you’ve heard of him) for not one minute reminds you of his recent Kool-Aid-drinking lunacy. Now there’s a mission that’s...never mind.

Alias and Lost creator J.J. Abrams directed and co-wrote (along with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, collaborators on both series) this third franchise installment. Taking the reins from II’s action ace, John Woo, Abrams gets off to a fine start, with a scene that’s attention-grabbing—first line: “We put an explosive charge in your head”—and tense. Impossible Missions Force Agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his fiancée, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), are tied to chairs, at the mercy of international bad guy Owen Davian (Hoffman). Hunt pleas. Julia whimpers. Davian barks. And Abrams’ camera shakes like hell, regardless of whether he’s swooping between two characters or training a shot on just one. Even music-video-turned-movie-directors have steadier hands.

It’s a style Abrams will use again —say, inside a helicopter—but otherwise, the movie’s as brisk and artiness-free as a summer blockbuster should be. Gadgets such as mini–ultrasound machines and the aforementioned brain bomb are used as Hunt and his team—computer whiz Luther Strickell (the returning Ving Rhames), transportation expert Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and background operative Zhen (Maggie Q)—are called upon to find a bazillion-dollar “rabbit’s foot,” an object whose aim is specifically unknown but generally evil. Hunt globe-trots to such places as the Vatican and Shanghai. And though his superheroing in each location is quite challenging, the bigger problem Hunt faces is persuading his girlfriend to stick around while never telling her what he really does for a living.

True, that particular plotline leads to some Sith-quality dialogue, with Julia cooing, “Tell me that it’s real!”—“it” being their relationship—and Hunt repeatedly asking her to “Just trust me.” But the writing gets more believable outside of the love story—even terms such as “vascular ID” are casually bandied about. There’s some humor, too, mostly in the form of Shaun of the Dead’s Simon Pegg, who has a bit part as a fellow IMFer who guides Hunt via GPS, all the while nattering anxiously about how they’re both going to end up in jail.

But what everyone came for is to be dazzled—to see how inventive Abrams & Co. can get without blowing it. In that regard, M:I:III satisfies. At one point, Hunt goes Spider-Man, climbing walls and swinging between not-so-close skyscrapers on his chase for the mysterious foot. At another, the team makes the doppelgänger masks used in the previous movie, which involves photos and a kind of high-tech, 3-D pantograph.

Incredibly, Cruise doesn’t look as if he’s aged since his first appearance as Hunt a decade ago, and he’s just as believable as a go-to superspy. But the brilliant move here was casting Hoffman as the silky villain. One moment, he’s smoothly pronouncing that killing so-and-so was “fun”; the next, his voice is stranglingly tight as he’s trapped in a corner and doling out the threats. Hoffman’s greatest vocal performance, however, is when his Davian has Hunt in that chair and yells a perfectly bloodcurdling “Do you think I’m playing?!” No, sir—it’s clear that you and all the M:I:III contributors have taken their jobs quite seriously, indeed.

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