Full disclosure: I treasure John Woo's "Mission: Impossible II." That's an opinion bound to kick sand in the face of a lot of readers, but I just can't help myself. "Mission II" is such a charmingly berserk, completely unreasonable motion picture that it gleefully crosses the invisible line into pure lunacy; free of restraints, yet respectful of avoiding all out anarchy.
Tom Cruise had the right idea to give each "Mission" a singular directorial flavor, and Woo took this dare with his typical baroque flair, directly counteracting the slick, static Euro thrills of Brian De Palma's original film with his own brand of glorious, screwball stupefaction. It was a night at the opera, and I ate up every single note, leaving the theater with a dopey grin I'm still unable to wipe away six years later.
At least appreciating what "Mission II" was trying to achieve gooses the experience of watching "Mission III." Marking the feature film directing debut of television mastermind J.J. Abrams ("Alias," "Lost," "Felicity"), the small screen vet spins another new secret agent flavor with this latest installment, funneling all those hard fought years of spy and suspense stories into this wildly entertaining gorilla of a film.
Right from the opening frames (a heart-stopping flash forward to the final confrontation), Abrams declares that the primitive hero worship of Woo's "Mission" has been completely abandoned. "Mission III" is a brutal, resourceful, edgy thriller, reminiscent of De Palma's original espionage game of double-dutch, but taking the franchise deeper into character development and pure, bountiful spy thrills. While a respected television director, it's still hard to believe this is Abrams's first big screen film; there's an awe-inspiring confidence and trust in the audience here that many established filmmakers still haven't a clue how to achieve.
Abrams wants the audience to get in cozy with Ethan; to feel the man's satisfaction with a romantic partner and family life that he's never had before. Abrams strives early in the film to convey a sense of stability that Ethan's globetrotting IMF situation would never allow, and how much it kills him inside to leave his woman. Through tremendous, beautifully internalized work from Cruise (his best "Mission" performance to date), the character is given a peaceful mind and a worrisome soul to go along with his expected "Lil' Terminator" violent side. Abrams pays careful attention to Cruise's silences to help give the actor an opportunity to express Ethan's conflicted heart, as well as give the role something the other films always fumbled: a realistic love life.
Once emotional attachment has been established, Abrams wastes no time getting to the gritty action bonanzas. "Mission III" has its fair share of exploding cars, gun fights, and shattered glass, but the action is much more abrasive this time out, and you feel every punch and kick along with the characters. With a villain who looks like he might actually eat a baby if provoked, and stunt set pieces that put Ethan and the team into heightened, but still believable situations of danger (a mid-movie bridge attack is a personal favorite), "Mission" achieves a rare verisimilitude that Woo's film's deliberately ignored and De Palma wasn't interested in. Of course, this is still a big, juicy Hollywood fat cat production; but good heavens, the feeling that Ethan might not make it becomes a real, honest-to-God concern as the tension mounts with unsettling speed.
Cruise doesn't carry the weight alone, surrounding himself with talent than ranges from reliably firm (Laurence Fishburne as Ethan's boss) to a little baffling (Billy Crudup as a colleague and Keri Russell as a bad mofo agent), to Hoffman's steamrolling villain work, which doesn't really factor into the film as much as it appears to in the marketing. Abrams is less sure what to do with Davian, but Hoffman makes his moments sizzle by using a cocksure attitude of sleepy, irritated menace to demonstrate Davian's wrath, instead of going the usual screamy route.
Also interesting is to see a "Mission: Impossible" story that enjoys actual teamwork to complete the assignments. Sure, this is still the Tom Cruise show, but Abrams allows the team to play a bigger role in the action, which takes the gang to Berlin, Shanghai, and includes an amusing body switcheroo (with those incredible masks) interlude at the Vatican.
To see an enormous studio franchise like this consciously change shape and focus with each installment is nothing short of a cinematic miracle. Abrams and Cruise have taken some tonal gambles with "Mission: Impossible III," and they've managed to find an even richer side of Ethan Hunt's story to tell, avoiding a sense of droopy finality that typically accompanies trilogy closers. This is a divine, rollicking, fingernail-chewing action thriller, and kicks off the abnormally diverse summer 2006 moviegoing season with a deafening roar.