Mission: Impossible III

tom-cruise-michelle-monaghanThose who’ve seen 1999′s Magnolia, where angelic Philip Seymour Hoffman pleaded with demonic Tom Cruise to reconnect with his dying father, might watch the two of them in Mission: Impossible III with a trace of amusement. Here, Cruise is the angel — secret agent Ethan Hunt — and Hoffman, fresh from his Oscar win for Capote, is the blandly contemptuous weapons dealer Owen Davian (sounds like Damien — anti-Christ?). As the movie kicks off, Ethan is in shackles and Davian, his gun pointed at the head of Ethan’s wife (Michelle Monaghan), demands to know where “the Rabbit Foot” is. We don’t, at first, have any idea what the Rabbit Foot is. We don’t, when the film is over, have any idea either.

Despite the presence of Hoffman (who more or less phones in Davian’s flaccid megalomania) and the usual slick cast — returning M:I vet Ving Rhames, plus Laurence Fishburne for Matrix cred, Jonathan Rhys Myers for indie cred, and Simon Pegg for Shaun of the Dead fans — this is easily the weakest of the missions impossible. Which is saying a lot, since I didn’t care for the previous two, either. But at least the first one (1996, Brian De Palma) and the second (2000, John Woo) seemed to be following an interesting template: hire a flamboyant action/suspense master and let him loose on a big-budget spy flick. Here, Cruise and his coproducer Paula Wagner have hired J.J. Abrams, creator of such appointment TV as Lost and Alias (and Felicity, whose star Keri Russell dutifully puts in ten minutes here as one of Ethan’s rookie agents).

Abrams can assemble sleek entertainment and tell a story cleanly, but I found myself oddly nostalgic for the previous entries, which were proudly incomprehensible but at least had style — De Palma’s split-screen paranoia, Woo’s doves fluttering above fiery explosions. Mission: Impossible III hustles well and, to use a David Denby trope, “moves the metal” — but without an outsize directorial vision it looks even more like sub-007 than the others did. Ethan’s mission is to secure the Rabbit Foot to save his wife, but we don’t believe in their love any more than we bought Cruise and Emmanuelle BĂ©art or Cruise and Thandie Newton. Abrams attempts to ground their relationship in the convivial reality of an engagement party, but that only underscores the absurdity that she thinks he “studies traffic patterns” instead of covertly looking for Rabbit Feet.

There’s a nice, quick little fight scene in an elevator that makes dynamic use of the tiny space. It’s the only moment we sense any real physical engagement with the thrills. Elsewhere, it’s all kaboom and CGI. Once again, Cruise dons a cutting-edge mask to pose as his nemesis, though Hoffman can scarcely be bothered to act like Tom Cruise acting like Hoffman. Give Cruise credit — he works hard in these movies, like an extremely conscientious quarterback making sure all his teammates get a good piece of the play. But this is still a star-quarterback movie, though it makes a little more of an effort to abide by the original TV show’s ensemble format. In the end, Ethan’s mission is the only one. There’s never a moment where we feel the movie could easily branch off and follow, say, Ving Rhames’ character arc — poor, thrice-underused Ving Rhames — and the film’s halfhearted nod to equal-opportunity mayhem, in the form of an agent played by Irish-Vietnamese actress Maggie Q, ends up as equal-opportunity uselessness.

At one point, Simon Pegg (also wasted as the standard-issue dithering Brit) speculates that the Rabbit Foot might be some deadly bit of tech known as “the Anti-God Compound.” Whoa! A MacGuffin that can actually take down God. No, it’s really just something that can lay waste to everything — “buildings, children, ice-cream parlors,” as Pegg explains. It rides around in a glass tube marked by a nuclear symbol. It’s implied that Davian wants to sell it to Middle Eastern terrorists, but then he visits the Vatican — to meet with contacts, we’re told. So … the Pope wants the bomb? As before, Mission: Impossible III is geopolitically loopy, but it’s also the first to come out post-9/11, and its apolitical blitheness — some terror must be stopped, y’know, somewhere — doesn’t play as well as it did in 1996 or 2000. Maybe it’s time for spy movies to go the way of westerns and musicals. I for one wouldn’t miss them much.

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