Continuing my retrospective look at Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series, we’ve already seen the intelligent plotting and tension thrills of Brian De Palma’s entry, and enjoyed the guilty pleasure excesses of John Woo’s slo-mo, gun-fu sequel, and now it’s time to look at the third part, J. J. Abrams’s interpretation.
Whatever your feelings towards the first two Mission: Impossible instalments – and the massive tonal shift between them, veering towards outright action movie territory – both proved to be sizeable Box Office hits, the latter making over half a billion dollars, which was more than even the superior first outing. A third film was guaranteed, the question was only: when?
One would assume that the project was delayed by Cruise’s own hectic schedule – he shot Vanilla Sky, Minority Report, The Last Samurai and War of the Worlds in the intervening 6 year period – but the scheduling problems actually mainly came from the difficultly they had securing a suitable director. Cruise always maintained that he wanted a different, fresh approach to each movie, and therefore wanted vastly different directors to take each subsequent instalment, and to this end he initially approached David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) to direct the film. It would have certainly been interesting to see what Fincher would have done with the material, although I have to say that I can’t imagine him being all that impressed with just how much control Cruise would retain over the franchise as a whole. Either way it was never to be; Fincher would leave the project to do another film instead (which he also eventually dropped out of), and was then replaced by Joe Carnahan. Carnahan, at the time, had only Narc under his belt and I was eagerly anticipating his dark, more Narc-style take on the Mission: Impossible series. Unfortunately (or perhaps somewhat fortunately given his vapid take on The A-Team) Carnahan would also leave the project, this time allegedly due to disputes over the film’s tone. His departure, in 2004, only a month before filming was scheduled to start, caused much more significant problems – after all he’d been working in Pre-Production on it for over 18 months – and, whilst they would sign up his replacement later that year, Cruise would by then be committed to War of the Worlds, thereby further delaying this second sequel.
No doubt it was an absolute shock to Paramount Studios when it was announced that a TV director would be taking over directorial duties, and indeed making his feature film directorial debut, but Cruise had just finished watching the first two seasons of J.J. Abrams hit series Alias, starring Jennifer Garner, and there was no doubt in his mind that he wanted the man on board Mission: Impossible III. It would be the highest green-lit budget in history for a film by a first-time feature director, but it was worth every penny – Abrams would do the series justice and, later, with Star Trek, would further prove that Paramount backed the right horse.
“I know we've joked about it, but I'm always this close on begging you to stop training our people and get your ass back in the field.”
The story, taking place six years after the last movie (each movie has gone with a story roughly set in the present), sees IMF operative Ethan Hunt retired from active duty, and now training new recruits. He’s saved the world twice, been disavowed once, and now he has a life and a regular, healthy relationship too – aside from the fact that his girlfriend thinks that he works in road and traffic assessment. But when an IMF operation goes awry, and one of his star recruits gets captured, Hunt is called back in for one final assignment: to get her back. Soon, a simple rescue operation snowballs into a much more personal vendetta, as he finds himself face to face with a notorious arms dealer, an opponent who has the clout to pose a threat not only to him and his IMF team, but also to his own personal associations – including his soon-to-be wife.
Well, pre-credits sequences always give you a clue as to how each Mission: Impossible entry will pan out – with Brian De Palma’s first outing we had an excellent little nod towards the original TV series, hints towards the complicated love interest and towards the director’s inimitable style; the second movie immediately introduced us to rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose, posing as Cruise’s Ethan Hunt no less, as well as showing us Hunt disturbed from his vacation to go on assignment. This third film kicks off with one of the best pre-credits sequences of all time, not just within this franchise, but of pretty-much any film I have ever seen (including the Bond reboot). In it we find Cruise’s IMF agent strapped to a chair, with an explosive device inserted in his head, and with a gun being pointed at a similarly bound and gagged woman who we can easily assume is his girlfriend/wife. Acclaimed actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman is pointing the gun, and he is not a very happy man, counting to ten before he pulls the trigger, as Hunt desperately tries to defuse the situation. The scene ends with a bang, and the title sequence plays out, and you’re left sitting there exclaiming to yourself ‘wow, it couldn’t get much better than this!’.
“Who are you? What’s your name? Do you have a wife... a girlfriend? Because if you do, I’m gonna’ find her, whoever she is. I’m gonna’ hurt her. I’m gonna’ make her bleed, and cry, and call out your name. And then I’m gonna’ find you, and kill you right in front of her.”
There is no doubt that the downright brutal tone for Mission: Impossible III must have stemmed from the involvement of Narc’s Joe Carnahan for so long in pre-production. The script was finalised by that stage, and shooting was about to commence, and, even though J.J. Abrams was then signed on (and subsequently named as a co-writer), it seems evident the parts that were set in stone before he came on board, and the parts which he, more obviously, contributed to. The opening scene in the movie is unquestionably dark – if they had stuck with that right through to the end it would have made for a hell of a movie – and some of the rest of the movie is pretty brutal too, only now it feels interspliced with more easygoing, light-hearted moments of often outright comedy. Basically Abrams moments, stolen straight from his hit TV show Alias.
The trick with Alias was to have stress and tension running throughout, but a knowing feeling that it would all turn out ok in the end – every single episode started off with a pre-titles sequence (aka. a 'cold open') which showed you the lead character in an impossible situation, with no way out, no doubt about to be caught or killed. Then, after the titles, you’d go back to the start of the episode and work your way through to that impossible situation. The trouble was that, after a couple of seasons of the same routine, the predictability diminished any real tension. Worse still, the payoff was often quite anticlimactic – if your lead character is shown tied to a chair and being tortured then you knew that, come that point in the episode itself, her next move would be to break the chair legs and somehow use them to overpower her captors and gain the upper hand. Guaranteed.
It was clear that, aside from all the more minor comic additions that Abrams introduced into the bargain, a major influence from him coming on board as a director was to bring this Alias trope (and a formula used in numerous other TV shows – the ‘24 hours earlier’ routine) to the Mission: Impossible franchise. Whilst this made for, as stated, one of the best pre-credits sequences ever, it also, unfortunately, meant that the subsequent story was simply never going to live up to that opening blow. I don’t know why Carnahan left the production, but if it had anything to do with the disputes over justhow dark they wanted this chapter to be, then this is the point at which I can see him walking away – and this is the point that is perhaps the most disappointing in this film. It’s the only reason the movie does not score high and define itself as being, without a doubt, the best instalment in the series (so far). The twist at the end of the scene, which I’m trying my best to avoid spoiling for those who somehow have never seen this movie, is just deflating – the justification for that twist is tenuous and contrived at best – and, had they held through and avoided the Alias-ness of the situation (in other words, gone down the truly dark route), it would have made this a real movie to remember.
Still, there are plenty of other brutal bits that feel more Carnahan that Abrams in terms of the plot, and there is a great deal to enjoy in this instalment – agents die, lives are put on the line in such a way as to make you feel the genuine peril (unlike Mission: Impossible II), and Cruise is finally given an opponent who, on the face of it, he simply cannot beat. And what Abrams brought to the mix is also quite enjoyable, certainly making the blockbuster more entertaining, even if it doesn’t quite have the substance that you would have hoped for: after the titles run we see Ethan Hunt’s home life for the first time, and, again, it feels like an episode of Alias, with a bunch of friends and family having a party – it just happens that one of them is a secret agent and nobody else knows about it. Hunt cracks jokes, is massively charming (as you would only expect from Cruise), and proves himself the life and soul of the party. Even when he gets pulled back in for a serious, and quite personal operation – one which appears to have been borrowed straight out of the original Mission: Impossible series, from an episode where Jim Phelps is pulled out of retirement to find the man who killed his protégé – reuniting with his fellow teammates leads to lots of wisecracks and friendly banter, particularly on the topic of marriage and extra-IMF relationships.
The tonal shift, on paper, seems quite up and down – flipping from deadly serious to deadpan humour in a matter of seconds, seemingly on a whim – but the reality is that Abrams at least makes it feel quite fluid and consistent throughout: he never takes the light-heartedness too far, nor does he burden the audience with the relentless brutality that (perhaps) was the direction Carnahan wanted to take the project in. He also brings to the front a number of positive aspects of his own nascent writer/director style: hand held camera work to heighten the tension, but not to a dizzifying degree; a suitably escalating score – reminiscent of Alias – which maintains the tension (and also, for the first time, makes excellent use of the classic Mission: Impossible theme and the other main themes from the original series); an eye for well-staged but not over-the-top action; characterisation that makes you actually care about the characters; and, perhaps most obviously, his distinctive anti-macguffin trope: here the object everyone is searching for is merely identified as ‘the Rabbit’s Foot’ and never fully detailed (c.f. Star Trek’s ‘Red Matter’).
“Have you been away for so long you've forgotten how good we are?”
Abrams also manages to both reintroduce and establish the team-based structure (which has largely been missing from across the entire series) as well as finally giving the only recurring character (Ving Rhames’s IMF operative Luther Stickell) a more worthy role to play. Whilst Cruise initially wanted to bring back the character of Nyah Nordoff-Hall from Mission: Impossible II – an idea which, if it had come to fruition, would have distinguished this from the Bond franchise in terms of consistency, and made it more like Bourne – actress Thandie Newton was unavailable for the project (Fans would have, no doubt, been actually quite relieved by this, since Newton was far from impressive in terms of her performance in the last movie.) Instead they gave his character a new love interest, arguably a more serious, realistic one, and one which was on the cusp of the commitment of marriage. It’s a plot point which is used to great effect across the narrative and I was impressed by the way in which it was utilised (although I do have pause for concern over what direction they’ve gone for in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but that question should be left for the next review...).
Supporting cast members in the series have always been fairly high profile, and whilst Mission: Impossible III does not quite have the likes of Hopkins, Voight, Jean Reno, Kristen Scott Thomas etc. etc. to fall back on, it does have an impressive list of solid supporting players who get a fair amount of material to play with, even if their characters are not sufficiently developed. Morpheus himself, Larry Fishburne (recently a CSI mainstay) pops up as the new IMF director, and, despite being quite one-dimensional, he does get a few nice lines (although he is far from as assured as Hopkins was in the equivalent role in the last movie); Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s Michelle Monaghan also tries her hardest to avoid cliché in the blissfully-unaware-of-what-my-husband-actually-does-for-a-job role.
The team itself are also fairly well realised: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (The Tudors) is the pilot, the leggy beauty Maggie Q (Die Hard 4, the new Nikita TV series) is equally convincing in action as she is in distraction, and Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Paul) once again plays the same joke-cracking character he always plays as the computer nerd Benji (well, at least it wasn’t Ricky Gervais, as was originally planned). As stated, Ving Rhames gets a little bit more of a role this time around – and it’s about time! – and, whilst most of it is just friendly banter between him and Cruise, the friendship built over time between their characters at least feels genuine. We get Billy Crudup (Watchmen) in the role of Cruise’s direct IMF manager, overseeing his operations, although his performance largely goes down a fairly predictable route in this particular narrative, and Crudup does not do a great job at convincing as a genuine friend to Cruise, and there’s also Keri Russell (Bedtime Stories) making the most of a short but punchy role that was originally supposed to go to Scarlett Johansson (now that would have been a shock!). She’s a prime example of where Abrams’s forte lies: we actually care about the plight of her character, even though we only get a few minutes with her.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Punch Drunk Love, The Ides of March) is also perfectly cast as the villain of the piece (somewhat surprisingly so, when you consider the physicality of some of his scenes), assured and determined throughout; totally unafraid of death; and undeniably menacing. It was a role that was originally going to go to Kenneth Branagh, which may have turned out quite interesting, but Hoffman is an excellent nemesis – a seemingly insurmountable opponent, who can’t be caught, can’t be detained or imprisoned (for long) and who can find you and your loved ones wherever you may be.
“You hung me out of a plane. You can tell a lot about a person's character by how they treat people they don't have to treat well.”
Indeed it’s Hoffman’s characterisation, and the character he plays, which gives Cruise the room to actually show off some acting in this instalment. People are always down on Cruise, most notably because of his couch-jumping antics, but also because of his admittedly dodgy Scientology obsession, but the reality is that the man makes great movies, and provides consistently good performances – he’s committed 110% to his work, and it shows in the end result. For him, it’s clearly not just about turning up and reciting his lines; he may not be a method-acting genius like Day-Lewis, but he has still proven that he has a fair amount of range, and provided us with some genuinely quality performances (I’m not just talking about his near Oscar-win on Born on the Fourth of July, but also almost everything he’s done in the last decade – from Vanilla Sky to The Last Samurai; from Minority Report to War of the Worlds – he’s proven that you can make consistent $100 Million+ blockbuster movies and provide decent acting too).
Quality acting may not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think about the Mission: Impossible franchise – it’s always about the stunning set-pieces, the twisty plot, and the well-staged action – but this third instalment does actually provide some material for Cruise to sink his teeth into. Even before the title sequence is played we have a considerably tense and stressful teaser scene with Cruise’s character pleading for his wife’s life, and it’s truly gripping as we watch his normally calm-under-pressure super-spy reaching the point of absolute desperation: he tries every possible manoeuvre to negotiate, de-escalate and defuse the situation, and the genuine look of horror on his face; the tears welling in his eyes at the end, truly imbue this excellent sequence with palpable emotion.
Of course it isn’t all doom and gloom – this wouldn’t be a Mission: Impossible entry without a whole bunch of stunning stunts, and Abrams’s instalment certainly does not disappoint in that regard. The first act rescue sequence is expertly staged and, for once, actually appears to be a team effort rather than a one man show. It also poignantly counterpoints the infinite-bullets approach of Woo’s last chapter, this time showing just how good Hunt’s superspy can be with only one bullet to play with. Authentic tactics are also on prime display here – rather than just employing fictional 'gun-fu' to take out his opponents, we get blocking and covering the room with military precision. The second act Vatican raid is also a great team effort, and whilst the trademark dangling-from-a-wire sequence is not from a particularly impressive height, again the precision of the drop is superb. The face masks are also not bandied around on a whim (as they were in the last film), instead we actually get to see how they are made and, in a fantastic piece of effects work, how they are moulded onto his face.
Then there’s the pendulum swing onto a skyscraper in Shanghai. I have to say that I wasn’t as impressed by this sequence as with those before it, Abrams employing his trademark blur effect to such an extent that you feel like the whole scene was just a little bit too green-screen for a genuine-stunts-driven franchise like Mission: Impossible. Still, the ensuing chase has some nice touches, and this certainly makes for the most continuously action-packed chapter (even more so than Woo’s movie).
Oddly enough, perhaps a little bit like the first film, it’s the mid-movie set-piece (in Mission: Impossible this was the CIA infiltration – dangling from the ceiling) that feels truly memorable. The bridge ambush is a stunning sequence which boasts several excellent moments: from the initial rocket attack to the spectacular shot where Cruise gets blown across the screen and into a car (CG at its absolute best, seamlessly blended in with live action elements); from the preposterously long jump across the gap in the bridge to the shooting down of the drone and attempted taking out of the helicopter. It’s a great sequence from start to finish.
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of Abrams’s adaptation though is that, maybe even more so than in Brian De Palma’s first outing, you genuinely feel like the action scenes are tied into the plot; naturally a consequence of the narrative, rather than the lynch-pins that hold the story together. On both previous instalments screenwriter Robert Towne (who didn’t return for this one) complained about basically having to write a story around a series of action set-pieces, first at Brian De Palma’s insistence, and then John Woo’s. This obviously had an impact on the resultant story, and the end films, and, for Mission: Impossible III, irrespective of any other shortcomings (like the somewhat anticlimactic twist) the action definitely feels like an integral part of the plot and thus the proceedings.
Indeed, it’s perhaps only the nagging trappings of Abrams’s Alias habits that prevent this movie from being the standout best of the first three films. Had he thought through the amazing opening sequence in a slightly better way (and provided a more satisfying payoff), it could have made this a truly memorable, modern classic spy-thriller-actioner.
At the end of the day, though, Mission: Impossible III is still, notwithstanding the upcoming fourth chapter, a strong contender for the title of top Mission: Impossible movie. Whilst the series may not quite be regarded in the same way as Bond or even Bourne, it comes a close third – which is far from a bad thing – and it has proved time and again to be a reliable, consistently entertaining, often spectacular franchise, with varying, differently-themed and differently-styled entries (unlike Bond or Bourne). The third part only cemented its standing, reining in the excesses of the second chapter and returning the films to arguably the closest that they have ever been to the original TV series. It also reminded us, once again, that this was a Tom Cruise production through-and-through, and that his supporting clout and utter commitment to the project – as well as his star charisma and driving performance – is truly what brings people flocking to the cinema in droves. This may well have been a Mission: Impossible chapter in the style of J.J. Abrams, but, when all is said and done, it was still Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series.
The question is: can he bring the magic for a fourth time? With Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol already booked for the IMAX, I guess it’s just a matter of hours until I find out the answer.
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