Like the adrenaline shot that invigorates one of his characters, television wunderkind J.J. Abrams’s stab at the billion-dollar Tom Cruise spy franchise briefly gets your heart pounding, but in the end it fails to bring much-needed life to the latest reworking of Bruce Geller’s TV relic.
Tom Cruise and Michelle Monaghan in Mission: Impossible III
As creator of the small screen’s Alias and Lost, Abrams is an old hand at these undercover shenanigans, and there’s no disguising his love for the genre. Following Brian De Palma’s decade-old adaptation and John Woo’s 2000 sequel, Abrams’s installment stands as the best entry, insofar as the film's motivations remain clear (and utterly predictable) throughout – something I’ll never accuse De Palma’s film of. Nevertheless, his script (a collaboration with Alias veterans Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci that shares more than a passing resemblance to the Alias pilot, as well as some unfortunate similarities to their Legend of Zorro screenplay) is a collection of increasingly preposterous set pieces strung together by lots of running and miraculous bullet dodging by Cruise’s Ethan Hunt.
The pre-credit teaser finds Hunt bound to a chair, looking helplessly on as Julia (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s Michelle Monaghan), the love of his life, is threatened at gunpoint by the vile arms trader Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman, relishing what few scenes he has). Unless Hunt divulges the whereabouts of the “Rabbit’s Foot” (this film’s MacGuffin), Davian will execute Julia at the count of 10.
Cue Lalo Schrifrin’s classic theme, re-interpreted by Michael Giacchino. No stranger to scoring this type of material, Giacchino (who has composed for both Alias and Pixar’s Bond-tinged The Incredibles) keeps the action moving with ’60s-flavored music, a nice nod to the TV original.
Flashing back to happier times, Abrams attempts to explore Hunt’s domestic side, introducing him at Ethan and Julia’s engagement party. Hunt’s days spying for the Impossible Missions Force (hidden from his future bride) are mostly behind him, and he’s taken a role as a trainer of new recruits.
Lindsey (Keri Russell) is the first recruit to be recommended for field duty by Hunt, and when she’s taken hostage in Berlin, he accepts the rescue mission. He leads an IMF team comprising his old compatriot Luther (Ving Rhames) and newcomers Declan (Match Point’s Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen (Hong Kong star Maggie Q, a vision in a red dress), but things don’t quite go according to plan. Russell is a good sport, considering how Abrams tends to treat her (both here and as the star of yet another Abrams TV program, Felicity, where he disastrously ordered her hair cut, to the detriment of ratings). In fact, Abrams’s reliance on a MacGuffin isn’t the only comparison one could draw to Alfred Hitchcock. As the action moves from Italy (the location of the film’s standout scene, a Vatican heist/kidnapping sequence featuring a cassock-clad Cruise) to Virginia (an explosive ambush on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge) and finally Shanghai (a bungee-jumping stunt that stretches the audience’s credulity), it’s the female characters that take the most abuse. Abrams may have made the jump to anamorphic widescreen, but his roots in television remain visible. Much of the film is shot in close-up, and characterizations, which can evolve organically over the course of a TV series, are barely sketched here. For Cruise, that’s expected. For Hoffman, it’s criminal. Hitchcock would not approve.