Tuesday, May 09, 2006

"Mission: Impossible III" cruises past the PR

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III

directed by J.J. Abrams
starring Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames, Keri Russell, Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Michelle Monaghan

I have a pet theory that the Tom Cruise we’ve been seeing gallivanting in and out of the entertainment news of the past year or so isn’t the real Tom Cruise at all, but a cyborg made perfectly in his likeness and owned and operated by the Church of Scientology. (As for Katie Holmes, don’t even get me started on her.) Think how much it would explain—not just his tirades against psychotherapy and his desperately unconvincing attempts to convince everyone he’s madly in love, but the fact that he looks eerily younger and handsomer now than he did, say, a couple of years ago. Of course there’s nothing in all of this that can’t be more chalked up to a change of agent and/or a facelift, but I prefer my more sinister explanation.

Fortunately, the Cruise that’s been showing up on the movie screen seems to be the Cruise we know of old. Certainly, having seen “Mission: Impossible III,” I detect no change in the formula that’s made him Hollywood’s most consistent box-office heavyweight. He still keeps in good fighting trim, runs around a lot when his stuntman isn’t needed, and alternates that million-dollar smile with looks of clenched-jawed determination, soulful gazes at women, and (a more recent addition, from roughly “Magnolia” on) valiant efforts to look like he’s in deep psychological pain where the script requires it. And he does this all perfectly serviceably in what I can really only describe as a perfectly serviceable thriller: MI3 gets the job done, it holds one’s attention and interest throughout its duration, and it’s better than the limp MI2. What more, really, can we ask?

J.J. Abrams makes a reasonably smooth transition to the big screen, though I’ve seen much tighter and neater storylines in any and all of his excellent T.V. shows. The catalyst for MI3—the crisis that brings Ethan Hunt (Cruise) out of semi-retirement—is a call to retrieve his star pupil, agent Lindsey Ferris (Keri Russell), from the evil clutches of ruthless arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). This rescue operation, of course, ends up being the setup for a much bigger game, one that leads Cruise and an exceptionally good-looking team (composed of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, hapa model/actress Maggie Q, and old stalwart Ving Rhames) from the sewers of the Vatican (the movie’s best set piece) to the rooftops of Shanghai. In retrospect, of course, the setup seems both unnecessarily elaborate and elaborately unnecessary: the sure mark of being at once over- and underplotted. If you find on reflection that certain things don’t add up, despite a perfunctory third-quarter attempt at explanation by one of the movie’s villains, you’re probably right.

Plot creaks aside, the mood, tone, and pacing of MI3 has very much the feel of an episode of “Alias,”from the tense intra-agency dynamics to the nervous charm of loyal but apprehensive techies to the quick-change disguises that Hunt et al. must pull off, chameleon-style, in a matter of minutes. Of course, no “Mission: Impossible” movie would be complete without an appearance or two of the wondrous rubber mask, and this one, unlike MI2, uses the old device just enough and not too much. Visually, the film doesn’t have the pizzazz of either of its predecessors. Abrams, after all, is no De Palma or John Woo; his action sequences are adequate without being dazzling, and at times the camera work in those scenes is muddy and chaotic. What Abrams brings to the franchise that the first two installments lacked is a recognizable human scale. Brian De Palma, directing the original, wrapped the picture in the chilly precision of his style, which you had to admire for its sheer virtuosity even as it kept you at an infinite emotional distance from the characters. John Woo tried for something along the lines of an operatic love triangle, and ended up with a tepid ripoff of “Notorious.” Abrams, by contrast, focuses on a more modest romance: Ethan Hunt, having evidently had enough of his high-octane flirtations with exotic femmes fatales and foxy jewel thieves, wants to marry a cute American doctor, Julia (an appealing Michelle Monaghan), and settle down. It’s an old trope—the superhero who wants to become everyman for the sake of love, and thereby renders himself vulnerable—but Abrams works hard to vest it with as much heartfelt emotion and tenderness as you can stuff into a two-hour action film.

Unfortunately, I still didn’t buy it, any more than I bought the more melodramatic version in MI2. Ethan’s great love always felt like a function of the plot, rather than the other way around. It doesn’t help that I’m just a wee bit tired of the unsuspecting female love interest who becomes the hero’s damsel in distress—another classic trope, but one that hasn’t worn so well; I'm much more likely to be engaged when the damsel is clued in and can participate (think “True Lies”). Luckily, for all its functional dependence on the love story, MI3, unlike MI2, has enough going on that it’s not really necessary to buy into the idea that these two pretty people are soulmates. And if Abrams doesn’t quite pull off this relationship, he’s much more successful at adding a lightness and warmth to the subsidiary relationships—within Ethan’s team, within the agency—that fans of his shows will recognize and appreciate.

Indeed, the movie’s lightness and spryness is what ultimately distinguishes it from its forerunners. Even Cruise’s showdowns with Hoffman (who gets less screen time than he deserves) feel more like a sparring match than a duel to the death. And this is just as well. MI3 is as formulaic as a movie can get, but it succeeds by avoiding the three B’s—bloat, bombast, and boredom—and staying lively and quick on its feet. As such, it’s the perfect kickoff to the summer movie season. Now if its star could only tailor his PR so neatly...but that’s a discussion for another day.

GRADE: B

2 Comments:

Blogger echan said...

My three thoughts coming out of MI3 were:

(1) More Phillip Seymore Hoffman, please. I wish that gave him better lines.

(2) Thank God Maggie Q. was cast as a subordinate. In the past, she would have been cast as the "exotic" love interest. I'm also glad that they cast an Asian actress who speaks English. (After watching the trailers for Clean, I wonder why the other Maggie, Maggie Cheung, isn't cast in more English speaking parts).

(3) I liked how they chose not to explain how Tom Cruise obtained the Rabbit's Foot, once he got into the fortified Chinese military facility. In the past, they would have had hokey scenes with him dangling off of wires.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Jekteir said...

Yeah, those darn wires! What a waste of time! [/sarcasm]

MI:3 was good because at the end she was let into the secret - and his relationship with his coworkers changed into something else. It had a good ending - almost impossible with action films - because it was emotionally-based instead of plot-based or even, heaven forbid, terrible joke-based.

As for Ebert's comment that Ethan should realise the Rabbit's Foot is another "McGuffin", that's the point: in this film, it isn't something concrete like the NOC list or the virus. It's never explained, because not only the writers and the audience realise, but also the protagonist realises, that other things - think honeymoons - are more important than what's in the scary red-labelled canister. And, let's face it, she can shoot better (though less flukily) than Jamie Lee in 'True Lies' (don't get me wrong - a great film) - if only he'd let her in on the secret earlier!

Now, I just need to find an explanation of what the hell actually happened in the plot...

8:38 PM  

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