A lot happens in the third Mission: Impossible. Little bombs are launched up folk's noses and into their brains. A gorgeous tangerine Lambor-ghini Diablo is cruelly blown to smith-ereens. And tremendous time and effort are devoted to chasing down the contents of what might be the most dangerous thermos in the history of movies.
Only theoretically, though, is this exciting. Mostly, it all feels like a lateral move that keeps alive a franchise without breaking new ground. The release of Mission: Impossible 3 marks the arrival of summer blockbusting. But the movie, directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, the busybody creator of ABC's Alias and Lost, doesn't rise to the seasonal occasion so much as settle into it. In any Mission: Impossible, Tom Cruise has to plummet from some outrageous height only to dangle 15cm above the ground, and so he does.
Brian De Palma directed the first installment, in 1996, with a jolly indifference to a navigable plot. He'd made a subversive blockbuster that he knew was ridiculous. He was winking at us, yet it was exciting: helicopters flying through train tunnels. Four years later, John Woo handled the sequel, and he seemed to think it'd be fun to sleepwalk through the whole thing. It wasn't.
Abrams's contribution is superior to Woo's in that he appears to be wide awake. But a decade after the first movie, that kind of ludicrousness just seems commonplace now -- thanks in large part to Abrams and his TV shows, where absurd confrontations are treated with a kind of reverence. To a significant extent, Alias is a tribute to the original Mission: Impossible television series. So in a sense, the pop cosmos would seem to demand that he direct one of these movies, as much as his agents would.
Mission: Impossible 3
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Keri Russell (Lindsey), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Owen Davian), Bahar Soomekh (Ms. Kari), Laurence Fishburne (Brassel) Billy Crudup (John Musgrave)
Running time: 126 minutes
Taiwan Release: On general release
Abrams is almost too comfortable in this big-screen world of espionage. In Mission: Impossible: 3, a duel between helicopters set amid the propellers of a wind farm feels like business as usual. Isn't this the way action sequences have always been? The task seems to have inspired him merely to be extremely competent. He doesn't have many surprises for us.
The story seems especially ancient. In the six years since Mission: Impossible 2, Cruise's special agent Ethan Hunt has retired from fieldwork and is now just an instructor. He's engaged now, to a nice, tallish, dark-haired woman (Michelle Monaghan) who knows nothing about his double life but dotes on him anyway. (Boy, that seems familiar.) Domestic life suits him. But when an agent Ethan trained gets into trouble, he's pulled back in. Sigh.
Needless to say, the missing agent is the jumping-off point for a plot that leads straight to a porcine, global arms dealer named Owen Davian, who's played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Having spent most of last year riding high as the fragile, lisping Truman Capote, Hoffman seems content to be playing a virile basso profundo and out-and-out sadist who gets to talk Malkovich to Tom Cruise. "I'm gonna find her and I'm gonna hurt her," he growls, describing his plans for Ethan's ladylove. Hoffman is a backhanded delight. He's the last person you'd expect to be here. So watching him rough himself up, as he does in the best sequence in the whole movie, is clever and jokey: Hoffman on Hoffman, literally.
The rest of the cast is fun, too. It's a splendid and strange mix of actors. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the reptilian climber from Woody Allen's Match Point; Keri Russell (who was the star of Felicity, Abrams's first TV show); and the American-born Asian movie star Maggie Q join the franchise's other mainstay, Ving Rhames, as Ethan's cohorts. Monaghan, the little-red-Corvette miner in North Country, seems like a nice young lady, even with duct tape over her mouth. Meanwhile, the thespians Laurence Fishburne and Billy Crudup work in the agency's front offices, where corruption lurks.