No one is going to hold a gun to your head and make you watch Mission: Impossible III, but, sitting in the theater, you may feel a phantom pressure at the base of your skull. In the opening scene, Philip Seymour Hoffman pulls a similar maneuver, and since the movie swiftly deposits us a few days back in time, we know that we'll have to watch it again. The third installment of Paramount's franchise is easily the most sadistic of the trio. There are little pills that explode in people's brains and an unrelenting air of gloomy menace. Plus, how much exposure to Tom Cruise can one audience withstand?
Cruise has been America's reigning actor for so long now that all his moves have become signatures. There's the over-the-shoulder smile (shot in profile), the all-weather cocky grin, the "intense" look with cheeks sucked in, and, my personal favorite, the two-handed clutch of the head of his beloved. In M:I3, Cruise proves yet again that he's eminently watchable, gliding through the mayhem with a dancerly efficiency. He's an actor upon whom you can rest a $200 million movie. The real scandal of Cruise's behavior last summer was not his schoolboy exuberance or his Scientology lectures, but how unprofessional it was. He was endangering the franchise.
For, if nothing else, M:I3 is state-of-the-art franchise filmmaking. So as not to alienate potential international markets,it takes place in a world denuded of obvious national symbols, such as the American flag, and the only products onscreen are those that have paid for their placement. The cast is designed to appeal to a wide range of demographics, from Teenage Boys (Maggie Q) to Matrix Fans (Laurence Fishburne) to Women (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). When Billy Crudup, Keri Russell, and Ving Rhames show up, it's corporate overkill. And like most franchise movies, M:I3 is a calculated response to the art form's two challenges: How efficiently can we make you care about these characters, and how awesome can we make the action scenes?
The character development was entrusted to a youngish, hotshot director, J.J. Abrams, who conceived of the beloved TV shows Alias and Lost. On Alias, Abrams proved that he could make the life of a pouty international superspy seem down-to-earth and believable. In M:I3, he takes on his own mission impossible: humanize Tom Cruise. At the film's outset, Cruise's Ethan Hunt has retired from the field and has plans to marry Julia, his nurse girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan). Their relationship seems to consist primarily of repeating the name of a lake where they had an early date. Does Julia find it strange that Ethan takes her to a beautiful hospital rooftop to tearfully explain that he has to go away for a few days on a business trip? Apparently not: She leaves the roof and marries him downstairs. In a summer blockbuster, the course of true love never does make sense, but it does run smooth.
Ethan has, of course, been lured back into his tailored black combat gear: A former protégé has been kidnapped by Owen Davian, a secretive arms dealer played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Casting Hoffman was a great idea, although he's not allowed to romp all over the movie a la Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Even so, he's a welcome and disturbing presence. My favorite moment is a throwaway one where he petulantly grabs a drink being served to him. Better yet is his dressing down of Cruise, which was splashed all over the trailer: "Do you have a wife or girlfriend? Whoever she is, I'm going to find her, and I'm going to hurt her ... " He radiates evil. He acts like he believes this crap.
The action scenes are thrilling in the modern, quick-cut, disorienting way. Abrams stages a balletic helicopter chase through a field of windmills, and he's willing to slow things down on occasion, as when Cruise leans out of a speeding Range Rover for a precision pistol shot. Still, at the extreme risk of sounding like a killjoy, I think something has been lost with the digitization of action movies. The great "Aaaah!" moment of M:I3 is a leap from the top of a Shanghai office tower, but the back of my mind was churning: Is that real? I will have to wait to see the DVD featurette to know for certain. That's why I derived greater pleasure from the film's analog tricks: a clever scene involving lip-reading and some good old-fashioned heart-wrenching mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
No doubt M:I3 will find its place in the summer box-office sun. The movie raises your pulse, it has visual wow. But I suspect that audiences will emerge into the light feeling more battered than entertained. With its flashback structure, M:I3 continually toys with the idea that Owen Davian will execute Julia. As a result, for all of the movie's professional craft and lovely vertigo, the experience is like eating popcorn in a guillotine.