Monday, May 15, 2006

Mission: Impossible III / *** (PG-13)

Ethan Hunt: Tom Cruise
Owen Davian: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Luther Strickell: Ving Rhames
Declan: Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Julia: Michelle Monaghan
Zhen: Maggie Q
Musgrave: Billy Crudup
Lindsey: Keri Russell
Brassel: Laurence Fishburne

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by J. J. Abrams. Written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Abrams. Based on the TV series created by Bruce Geller. Running time: 126 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of frenetic violence and menace, disturbing images, and some sensuality).

If you look at action heroes throughout the ages of film, you might notice that actors often run funny. Probably the clearest case in point is Harrison Ford, who has done his fair share of it in his films. Tom Cruise has also made much of his career out of running. Beyond the “Mission: Impossible” movies he was running early on in “All the Right Moves” right on up through “War of the Worlds”. The thing about Cruise is that he is good at it. Unlike most actors, he looks good doing it; and he does it a lot in “Mission: Impossible III”.

The good news is that like his running stance, his track record with the “Mission: Impossible” franchise is pretty good. They aren’t the in depth moral dilemma political thrillers of the seventies, but they provide pretty good popcorn crunching fare for those summer blockbuster months. In the latest Impossible Missions Force adventure we find Cruise’s Ethan Hunt once again saving the world from a terrible threat, and we also get the bonus of a look into the private life of a super spy.

The second opening of the film finds Ethan at an engagement bash to his true love Julia, played by Michelle Monaghan (“North Country”). She thinks he works for the Department of Transportation. In spy reality, however, Ethan has retired from field service to become an operative trainer. But, of course, he is willing to come out of his semi-retirement to help rescue one of his former students (Keri Russell, “The Upside of Anger”) from a sadistic arms dealer, who is brokering a deal to sell a possible global threatening virus.

Much has been made of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn toward this more commercial oriented film than is typical for him, especially coming off his Oscar win this past year for his performance in “Capote”. He proves he has more than what it takes to be a diabolical villain as the arms dealer Owen Davian. The MPAA claims as reason for the PG-13 rating they awarded the film “intense sequences of frenetic violence and menace.” The “menace” included in this explanation is there entirely because of Hoffman’s performance.

The adjective of “frenetic” attached to the fairly well expected violence of the film can probably be attributed to the non-stop pace of the film established by director J.J. Abrams and his editing team. Abrams, creator of the popular television series “Alias” and “Lost”, was tapped personally by Cruise for his skill at fusing conspiratorial thriller elements with more soap-operatic personal storylines. He delivers both with a raw breakneck quality to the film, which is helped by opening the film with a scene from its climax and flashbacking what lead up to that point.

After the brutal opening sequence, where Hoffman gets a chance to sink his teeth into the audience right off the back, we learn that Hunt has a life outside IMF. While still never really delving into Hunt’s psyche, Abrams does a good job dangling this “real life” of Hunt’s into the fray of the espionage life he is so good at. That real life is as much a secret in the spy world as his spy job is in the real world. Never is that subject of the other life left out of a scene, usually a scene filled with flying bullets and explosions.

Cruise is as solid as he ever is in action mode. As a bonus to being a competent action hero, Cruise always has the extra ability of conveying pain and personal stress just under the surface, as if he is in a heated drama. Even though you know he always manages to pull it off in the end, he makes it easy to imagine that maybe this will be Hunt’s last mission.

The movie does often err on the side of spectacle rather than logic. A sequence involving a death defying leap across a gaping hole in a bridge, when going around would have been both easier and faster, comes to mind. And, although Hunt is obviously a very smart man, he often refuses to think out a situation entirely in order to keep the danger level up in the story. It was easy to figure out who all the bad guys were and Hunt should have been at least 10 steps ahead of me.

Despite a few errors in logic, “M: I III” is for the most part a smartly conceived picture and just the type of summer popcorn fare that I personally am welcoming at this time after spending the winter months ruminating over the heavy volume of independent thinkers that dominated the latter part of 2005. It also is a step above the overabundance of stupidity that has plagued the first half of 2006. Navigating away from the poor quality of the films released so far this year is proving to be the truly impossible mission, but this one isn’t a terrible place to start.

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