Judge Daniel MacDonald wonders why it's called "Mission: Impossible," when if the missions actually were impossible, the movies would just be depressing and short.
"Welcome back, brother."—Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames)
Released in early-summer 2006, Mission: Impossible: III (wow, that's a lot of colons) didn't live up to its financial expectations domestically, despite bringing in nearly $400,000,000 US in worldwide box office receipts. There are plenty of theories as to why, but one thing that's hard to blame is the movie itself—it's a slam-bang actioner that grabs hold in the opening minutes and doesn't let go. Far more grounded in character than its predecessors, first-time director J.J. Abrams ensures M:i:III has a lot of heart, a story that takes itself just serious enough, and performances that sell every moment. It's a strong, strong piece of work, not just as summer popcorn fare, but also as pure entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Super-agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, Jerry Maguire) has left the "mission" game, now training new field agents and working on his personal life, specifically his engagement to Julia (Michelle Monaghan, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang). But when his handler (Billy Crudup, Almost Famous) informs him that a student he approved for field duty (Keri Russell, The Upside of Anger) has been captured, and a rare rescue mission is planned, Hunt jumps back into action, literally.
Together with his team of specialists (Ving Rhames, Baby Boy; Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Match Point; Maggie Q Rush Hour 2), Hunt affects a bullet-riddled rescue, but discovers a much deeper plot involving the elusive "Rabbit's Foot," and an international arms dealer named Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Boogie Nights).
I was skeptical when I first heard that J.J. Abrams would be taking the reigns of this third installment of the franchise, after Joe Carnahan (Narc) dropped out of the project over creative differences. The directors of the previous two films were both established artists with distinct and polished styles—Brian DePalma (Blow Out) and John Woo (The Killer)—so it seemed questionable that a television writer/director/producer would get to cut his teeth in so prestigious a way. Sure, he created Lost and Alias, but can he direct a movie?
So, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mission: Impossible: III is to the other two films what Batman Begins is to that series. It's a completely fresh vision, giving the audience everything we never knew we wanted. Far removed from the ballet of excess that was M:I-2, and the calculated suspense of the original, M:i:III is meant to be semi-realistic, showing us everything from what Ethan Hunt is like at a party to how they make those ubiquitous masks. The movie is based on the premise that the more we get to know and relate to the characters, the more resonance the action scenes will have.
The picture goes out of its way to keep you on your toes, from its abrupt, violent, and emotionally engaging opening scene all the way to the end; it zigs when you expect a zag. The action happens fast and suddenly, often when characters are mid-conversation, with a palpable sense of danger. An ambush taking place on a bridge about halfway through the film is actually frightening in how relentless it is, and I wasn't sure how many of the characters would make it out alive, which is all that can be asked of an action scene.
Abrams and co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (they wrote The Island together—a movie I expect there is a longer and better cut of somewhere) have accepted the mission of making Ethan Hunt a fully realized character, which adds to the emotional payoff. By being engaged, Hunt seemingly has more at stake than ever before, and instead of always cocky and cool, we see a man who is sometimes frantic, sometimes driven, and occasionally teary-eyed.
They've also crafted a post-modern action film to boot. Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo) popularized the phrase "MacGuffin" to describe what Wikipedia defines as "a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story, but has little other relevance to the story." Nearly all action and suspense pictures have one, and it never really matters what it is, just as long as we understand that the bad guy wants it, and the good guy needs to keep/get it from him. In M:i:III, the MacGuffin (the Rabbit's Foot) is simply a mysterious container with biohazard markings on it—we're never told what it is or what it does, but we know it's really, really dangerous. Much of the action in the movie revolves around this object, but it could be anything from a diamond necklace to a loaf of bread; this is a very clever little wink to the audience, something that would make the Coen brothers (The Big Lebowski) proud.
A lot of the credit for the success of the picture—and, judging from the behind-the-scenes interviews, just ask anyone associated with the movie and they'll tell you—goes to Tom Cruise. Think what you will about his increasingly outspoken religious convictions or his tabloid-fodder personal life, but there's a reason he's a worldwide box office star. In the opening scene alone, he passes through a wide swath of emotions, from dazed to angry to terrified, in seconds; he never fails to sell the legitimacy of a scene, no matter how implausible it might objectively seem. It's clear that Cruise is dedicated 100% to the movie, never giving off the impression that he was napping in his trailer five minutes ago, and his work ethic emanates from the picture.
As Abrams points out in the audio commentary, though, the rest of the cast had to be very strong as well, or Cruise would be the center of every scene. Teamwork is much more prominent in this film than the previous two, and the supporting players each get a few moments to round out their characters. Fishburne gets some the picture's most memorable dialogue, while the stand out is, of course, Hoffman, who projects a vicious, truly menacing vibe in his short screen time: he is sadistic and without conscience, and isn't shy about it either. The rest of the cast is uniformly solid.
The movie has a strictly defined colour pallet, with blue and yellow the most prominent colours in most scenes. There's a continuity to this that I really liked, as instead of trying at all costs to accentuate how different each locale is using lighting, there is a strong continuity in the look that subtly ties the scenes together and ups the suspense. Yellow, especially, is not a colour often used as much as it is here, making every shot that much more visually interesting.
If you're a fan of Lost, you'll probably recognize the musical tone, but it works very well with the film. Composer Michael Giacchino (The Family Stone) seems to have taken a cue from the music of DePalma's film, with this a companion piece for Danny Elfman's (Batman) work there.
Paramount has created a predictably great looking and sounding DVD, with a crisp, bright picture, and aggressive Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack that your neighbors will comment on the next day. You just know this'll be looped on all the TVs at Best Buy for a good long while.
Disc One of this two-disc set also includes an entertaining, if not the most technically informative, audio commentary with Cruise and Abrams, and a decent 28-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that's actually more satisfying than almost anything on Disc Two. There's also about 8 minutes of deleted scenes that were wisely taken out, but you'll have to listen to the feature audio commentary for context on where the scenes originally were placed in the picture, and why they were removed. Finally, there's a tribute montage from an awards ceremony, highlighting Cruise's varied movie career. This and a second montage on Disc Two previously appeared on the Special Collector's Edition of Mission: Impossible.
Disc Two has a fluffy twenty-minute segment with the actors and director praising each other, followed by a more substantial look at the stunt work and special effects. There's an eight minute piece on creating the devise that makes the latex mask, an interesting bit about the score, and a barely amusing Moviefone Unscripted segment with Abrams and Cruise giggling like schoolgirls while they ask each other questions. Finally, there's a second Tom Cruise montage from the MTV Movie Awards, and "Launching the Mission," which shows the cast and crew (mostly Tom) at premieres around the world, including the "four premieres in four hours" that kicked off the movie's theatrical run in New York.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I loved the movie, the special features were a bit of a let down, and the Tom-love got old at times: if you played a drinking game where you had to drink any time someone said "Tom," you'd be passed out before the end of the first featurette. I understand, and appreciate, that Tom Cruise is this movie, and that he does all of his own stunts, and that he's the hardest working guy in Hollywood, etc., but a little more information on the craft itself would have been nice. There seems to be more quantity than quality, and the DVD could have benefited from a more in-depth documentary.
Mission: Impossible: III is a remarkable effort for a first-time feature director, and is one of the most enjoyable movies I've seen this year. A highly recommended purchase.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams
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