Less insanely intricate than Brian De Palma’s 1996 original and far less flamboyantly queer than John Woo’s 2001 sequel, J.J. Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III (or M:i:III, for those who crave multiple colons) is the oddest entry in Tom Cruise’s loosely TV-based franchise. Unlike its wildly divergent precursors, Abrams’s preordained blockbuster is a somewhat featureless espionage adventure, a straightforward tale of intelligence agency heroics and arms-dealing intrigue which—with its cornucopia of high-tech gadgets, loved ones in peril, and corrupt government baddies, as well as its passing interest in the toll wrought by duty on a super-spy’s personal life—resembles two other small-screen techno-thrillers: 24 and the director’s own Alias.
Moving from the idiosyncratically complex and outlandish to the impersonally efficient is a strange evolution for the series, especially considering that Cruise conceived of the films as vanity projects which would differentiate themselves via the employment of inimitable auteurs, a category into which Lost mastermind Abrams does not at present fall. And yet this transformation is also a financially and creatively shrewd one, allowing for the dispatching of intrusive “artistry” in favor of white-knuckle, five-a-minute kicks delivered, as usual, by unnaturally beautiful people in travel magazine-gorgeous locations. Shallow to its core and as propulsive as a runaway locomotive, it’s the most blatantly summer movie-ish of the Mission Impossibles. And also, surprisingly, the most viscerally entertaining.
As if culled from Abrams’s DVD collection, M:i:III‘s inconsequential plot synthesizes elements from—and offers random nods to—numerous sources (the work of De Palma and Hitchcock, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Total Recall, Born on the Fourth of July) in recounting IMF agent Ethan Hunt’s (Cruise) globe-trotting quest to recover a mysterious MacGuffin known as the Rabbit’s Foot from wicked Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who’s also abducted Hunt’s new wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan). After a bravura opening in which Davian threatens to murder Julia if Hunt doesn’t disclose the Rabbit’s Foot’s whereabouts, however, it becomes pointless to pay attention to anything uttered by the film’s stylish characters, each of them little more than human action figures with one expression and bendable appendages designed for myriad fighting-kicking-jumping poses.
This holds truest for Hunt, whose humanity is meant to shine through during domestic and romantic scenes with Julia (one culminating in an excruciatingly cute wedding), but who exhibits less personality than the current, crazy couch-jumping/silent birth-practicing/anti-depressant-vilifying celebrity iteration of Tom Cruise. Recast as the leader of a tactical team featuring Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Maggie Q—it’s Ethan Hunt and the Impossibles!—Cruise’s back-from-retirement hero is now both devoted spouse and father figure, all the while exuding a market-tested mixture of Jerry Maguire charm and macho fearlessness. The monumental lengths to which M:i:III goes to depict Cruise as an über-man are often comical (epitomized by an Austin Powers-worthy climactic resurrection), so much so that when Rhames tells Hunt “That look in your eye is a pain in my ass,” the inadvertent innuendo—recently rekindled by South Park‘s “Trapped in the Closet” episode—is priceless.
But as a handsome, athletic cipher, the actor is well-suited for Abrams’s extravagant set pieces, each one constructed with just enough proficiency (and loud-as-all-get-out audio) that even the disorienting sight of Felicity‘s Kerri Russell wielding firearms in slow-mo seems mildly reasonable. More than his adequate use of the widescreen frame, it’s the director’s skill at assembling his extended centerpieces—including a bridge siege by a fighter jet, and a Shanghai skyscraper robbery involving a death-defying base jump—that gives the bullets-and-bombs mayhem a coherence otherwise sorely lacking from his script (co-written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci). Rarely bothering with even the pretense of dramatic depth, the film uses breakneck momentum as its trump card, overwhelming one’s senses with a steady diet of sound and fury as a means of distracting attention away from the undernourished backgrounds of each principal player, the narrative’s logical inconsistencies, or the emptiness of the entire endeavor.
As with such high-profile ventures, the cast is rounded out by an assortment of heavy-hitters, all of who attempt—with mixed results—to enliven their one-dimensional roles through sheer force of personality. Thus, Rhames partakes in his usual suave badass routine, Billy Crudup goes the confidently classy route as an agency bigwig, Shaun of the Dead twit Simon Pegg provides flustered British quirkiness—and gets to ominously detail his thoughts on an apocalyptic device dubbed the “anti-God”—as a geeky computer specialist, and Laurence Fishburne relishes the opportunity to supply imperial scowls and devious smiles as Hunt’s IMF boss.
Ultimately, though, it’s Hoffman who steals M:i:III out from under Cruise and company’s constantly sprinting feet, turning his barely-outlined evil mastermind into a portrait of pitilessness so chilling that he almost achieves the unthinkable (or am I required to say “impossible”?) feat of casting legitimate doubt on Hunt’s chances for eventual success. His eyes dark and brutal, his portly frame belying sadistic strength, and his arrogance unyielding, Hoffman’s Davian is a creature of exquisite depravity. And as exemplified by an elaborate, mask-dependent Vatican kidnapping in which Cruise’s visage is visually devoured by that of Hoffman’s, he’s also the cold-blooded star of Abrams’s no-heart, all-action spectacular.