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Mission: Impossible III   C+

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writer: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, J.J. Abrams
Cast: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames, Billy Crudup, Michelle Monaghan, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Keri Russell, Maggie Q, Laurence Fishburne.

Review by Rob Vaux

I suppose my quibble with Mission: Impossible III boils down to choice of medium. A couple of weeks ago, I condemned The Sentinel for basically serving stale leftovers of star Kiefer Sutherland's TV show 24. M:I III falls into the same trap, this time emulating director J.J. Abrams' popular spy series Alias. The good news is that it's made with infinitely more energy and flair than The Sentinel. The bad news is that it still feels like a TV show blown up to movie-like proportions. Swap Tom Cruise out for Jennifer Garner, and you may as well have the season finale.

The issue, of course, is whether that bothers you at all. Alias has been praised as a supremely cinematic series, and the promise of more of the same should be enough to get fans and newcomers alike into the theaters. Nor does Abrams promote his own dynamic at the expense of that other spy show -- the one on which this particular franchise is based. There's plenty of the head games, double crosses, and ripping-off-the-latex-mask reveals that have come to define Mission: Impossible both now and back in the '60s. Add to that a ton of bombastic stunts, thundering explosions, and last-second escapes as Man of the Hour Ethan Hunt (Cruise) fights to save his ladylove (Michelle Monaghan) from an evil arms dealer (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and it looks like business as usual for both Abrams and the film series he's currently helming.

And that may be part of the problem. Just as Alias at times seems too big for the small screen, so does M:I III seem too small for the big one. For despite all the wirework, the crackerjack action scenes, and the nifty airships firing streaking missiles into the night, there's little here we haven't seen in either the first two movies or Abrams' earlier work. The details speak of copious cobbling from Alias, starting with the teaser opening that has Hunt tied to a chair while Hoffman's leering Owen Davian promises tortures aplenty (the pilot to the TV show hinged on a very similar device). Add to it a nerdy tech geek (Simon Pegg), a whiff of intradepartmental betrayal, and a penchant for high-tech gadgets contrasted with gloomy, clanking surroundings, and you can almost smell Sydney Bristow's perfume in the air. Seeing it distorted out onto a 40-foot screen brings very little to the equation; there's a greater sense of scale and clearly Abrams has more of a budget to play with, but the shoes still look two sizes too large.

Then there's the tricky question of Cruise. A central ethical tenet of film criticism is to critique the art, not the artist. Members of my profession are obligated to gauge the performance (the direction, the writing, etc.) solely by the performer's merits -- not who he's shagging, where he's eating, or what he's setting fire to in the alley behind the Viper Room. But the combination of desensitizing overhype and Cruise's sheer Looney Tunes nuttiness of late makes it (ahem) impossible to watch the film without his severely damaged persona leaking through. As an action hero, he's fine -- his charisma's a-bubblin' and he's got Hunt's modest characterization down pat -- but there's a creepy overlap in certain scenes between Cruise the actor and Cruise the public spectacle. Monaghan's disturbing physical resemblance to "real life" paramour Katie Holmes, coupled with on-screen romantic gestures that feel as staged as the photo ops and an overall "I drank the Kool Aid" intensity that transcends mere affectation, all lead to unwelcome flashes of Crazy Movie Star seeping into the text.

Does the film have anything to offer in spite of that? Sure, if you're of a mind. Hunt's various sidekicks mostly mark time, but Ving Rhames has some smooth moments as franchise regular Luther Stickell, and Laurence Fishburne (playing Hunt's perennially scowling boss) proudly reaffirms his status as Coolest Man on the Whole Damn Planet. Abrams knows this genre, and if the mayhem feels a little threadbare, at least he gives it the urgency and excitement it requires. His script is shallow, but reasonably clever, and its complexities hold enough surprises to deliver some undemanding entertainment. In light of that, my misgivings probably aren't a big deal. The line between television and cinema was blurred into oblivion long ago: cross-pollination runs rampant, and there's been so much give-and-take that saying "It's not worth 70mm" is really a meaningless statement. But the public buildup in the last few weeks has been unprecedented, topped (if the wildest rumors are to be believed) by a staged birth just a couple of weeks before the film's opening. You'd think it would be in the service of something more than just an OK Wednesday night on ABC. It's ironic that an industry so desperate to get people into the multiplex would rely on projects so steeped in the television experience to do it. And while there's nothing wrong with M:I III (beyond the usual complaints about summer movies), I found myself wondering if we really needed to bother getting off the couch for it.

Review published 05.04.2006.

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