In the first scene of this third installment of the big screen Cruiseified version of the 1960s TV series, we find ourselves in a grubby torture room that looks like something out of Hostel or Saw. We also find that sadistic arch-villain Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has implanted an explosive in arch-agent Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) brain. “Does that remind you of anything?” asks Davian sneeringly. I don’t know about Hunt, but it reminded me of Saw.
Whether or not Hunt is reminded of anything is left up in the air, since his real concern is Davian’s threat to plug Mrs. Hunt (Michelle Monaghan, North Country)if he doesn’t reveal the whereabouts of “the rabbit’s foot” by the time Davian counts to 10. As a result, Hunt wants to get his hands on Davian. However, Davian (who must have seen Cruise on Oprah and decided to take reasonable precautions) has made sure to chain Hunt securely to a handy barber chair. (A witty screenwriter could have inserted a classic Bette Davis/Joan Crawford exchange from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? at this point.)
All this is merely the set-up for the extended flashback that makes up the bulk of the two solid hours of preposterous stunts, ridiculous plotting, Tom Cruise’s biceps and lots and lots of things blowing up — all in glorious wide-screen and bone-jarring Dolby sound. At a reported price tag of $160 million, Mission Impossible III is the most expensive expanse of nothingness in the history of film.
No, the film is not so bad as to be unwatchable, but it’s a remarkably undistinguished film — and I’m not entirely sure that isn’t worse. At least an unwatchable film might have some personality. This has none. It’s almost exactly like every other star-action vehicle that’s come down the pike. Maybe the explosions are bigger and louder, but then so are the cliches. Apart from a few clever lines (mostly given to Laurence Fishburne’s character), the dialogue is rarely more than adequate, and totally predictable. Very often, it’s possible to say the next line before the actor gets around to it, which might be a plus since it gives the viewer something to do while waiting for the movie to blast, bluster and bulldoze its way to the final fade-out.
There’s a tendency to excuse all this witlessness on the grounds that this is a mindless summer-action picture. My question is why? Is there really a good case to be made for cutting slack for a movie that could honestly be advertised as “Bigger, Louder, Dumber”?
All the PR palaver about the series being rejuvenated by TV’s golden boy J.J. Abrams (creator of Alias and Lost) is just that — PR. Abrams claimed to be a big fan of the original series (pray, what else was he likely to say?), and boasted a desire to return it to the show’s more ensemble roots. Considering that this is the ultimate in a star-driven franchise, did we really think for a moment that it was going to put anyone on equal footing with co-producer Tom Cruise, especially since most of the supporting cast can easily out-act the star? If anything, it unwisely expands on its star by trying to humanize him — a particularly thankless task given the star at hand and his inescapable offscreen, one-man, freak-show antics.
Taking a page (scads of pages actually) from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with a dose of True Lies tossed in for good measure, Abrams decided to give Impossible Mission Force Agent Hunt a girlfriend/fiancee/wife, Julia (cutely called “Jules”). This not only gives Hunt a hankering for the “simple life,” it gives him someone to fret over, a personal target for the bad guy (see opening scene) and a reason to get all teary-eyed whenever the movie puts her in jeopardy. In theory, this humanizes the character and allows Cruise to emote. Unfortunately, Cruise’s tears seem about as sincere as his trademark smile, while his scenes of soulfully gazing into Monaghan’s eyes suggest less rapturous devotion than the star studying his own reflection therein. It hardly helps that Monaghan bears an uncanny resemblance to Katie Holmes.
The film’s status as an actioner doesn’t work much better. The story is driven by a silly MacGuffin: “the rabbit’s foot” (in this instance a kind of thermos filled with some sort of biological weapon, in the manner of the virus-laden eggs in Ken Russell’s 39-year-old film Billion Dollar Brain). There are huge action set-pieces, most of which are in the modern mode of being so fragmented and devoid of any sense of location that it’s impossible to tell what’s going on, but it must be exciting to judge by the frenzy of edits. And there’s (once again) a traitor in the organization (with two choices — one way too obvious).
But mostly there’s super-agent Hunt. I’m not sure what makes him so super, since for 90 percent of the movie he’s consistently a day late and a dollar short at everything he does. He rescues another agent too late to save her. He captures the bad guy and almost immediately loses him. He attempts to prevent the kidnapping of his wife and shows up just seconds late. This is a super-agent?
A lot of people will tell you to just switch off your brain, enjoy the spectacle and wallow in the carnage. That probably works if you just want to ogle Cruise. If you want to see lots of really cool explosions, that probably works, too. However, if you want to see a truly original action flick, hold out till June 6 when Wayne Kramer’s sadly overlooked Running Scared comes out on DVD. Rated PG-13 for violence and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke