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Non-Review Review: Mission Impossible III

Before Star Trek, JJ Abrams had his eye on another geek property. The Mission: Impossible franchise has had bit of a rocky history, with a deconstruction helmed by Brian dePalma and an explosively mind-numbing shaving commercial of a sequel from John Woo. With the Bourne franchise already checking the box for an American spy movie franchise, it seemed that the odds should have been against JJ Abrams’ action movie vehicle. In fairness, he doesn’t manage to entirely revive the franchise or provide a kickstart to a cinematic series, he merely provides a solid action movie with a bit more sparkle than most. In hindsight, it almost seems like it was just practice for his directing duties on Star Trek.

Somebody's Cruisin' for a bruisin'...

Part of me wonders what the point of having a Mission: Impossible film series is. The only common thread running between the trilogy aside from Cruise is Ving Rhames. Why can’t we just have Tom Cruise doing a generic action movie once every four years to fill the same void? There is no tonal or thematic similarity between the films – hell, Hunt doesn’t even seem like the same character between the three.

Anyway, that minor gripe aside (I’m full of them), it is a respectable action movie elevated by skilfull direction and acting. Cruise gets a lot of flak for his extra-curricular activities (and I certainly won’t pretend they are undeserved), but he is a more-than-capable leading man and he does have something ‘everyman’ about him. Even if it’s a ridiculously handsome and athletic everyman. Here Abrams anchors the character of Ethan Hunt, giving him a family. Yes, there were girls in the previous two films, but Hunt’s relationship with Julia gets a bit of fleshing out, which helps us believe that it’s more than just a forgettable action film (but only barely). And at least the film is honest enough to let us know right away that she’s going to end up in mortal danger. Because it’s kind of inevitable in a film like this.

Speaking of honesty on the part of the film, Abrams provides numerous such knowing nods towards the audience in structuring his film. He doesn’t label his Macguffin – a generic name given by Hitchcock to any object whose sole function is to give the characters something to chase – as a Macguffin, but he makes it perfectly clear that it should be thought of as such. Hunt spends the majority of the movie chasing ‘the Rabbit’s Foot’, but it’s never explained to the audience (or even to him) what it is. It is literally only important because it needs to be important. And that works.

Abrams seems to know that he can’t match his predecessor behind the camera, John Woo, in sheer action capacity, nor does he have the finesse of original director Brian dePalma. Instead, Abrams clearly just has a huge amount of enthusiasm for what he’s doing. His action sequences aren’t as solid as John Woo’s, but they serve more fully realised characters and a better structured plot. He doesn’t entirely dismantle the structure of the 1960s television show, instead actually using it and putting supports in place to strengthen it. His spy film isn’t as taunt as dePalma’s effort nor as kenetic as Woo’s, but it works slightly better overall, as if he knows just how to put together what he needs in order to get it to work. Taken as a whole, it is certainly the best movie of the trilogy.

And a huge portion of that comes from the cast. Abrams has put together a fantastic team, including Cruise (obviously) and then up-and-comers Michelle Monaghan, Jonathon Rhys-Myers, Maggie Q, Keri Russell and Billy Crudup, along with more experienced thespians like Laurence Fishburne (who is great in a deadpan supervisor role) and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman doesn’t really get enough to work with as a villain to make him seem like anything more than a two-dimensional foe who likes money and being evil (and not necessarily in that order) and certain character motivations seem to be more than a bit ripped from the headlines. Still, it’s a great cast working in an above average movie.

On the other hand, there’s nothing new here. There’s no one moment when your jaw hits the floor or you are blown away by what you see on screen. It’s all highly enjoyable as an action flick, and certainly above average, but it just feels a little numbing. I don’t think that this movie has single-handedly restarted the franchise or anything as radical as that (and I imagine it will be a while before we see Mission: Impossible IV).

Still, above average is above average and both Abrams and Cruise know what they are doing. And they are clearly enjoying it. Which means it’s a lot easier for the audience to get in on enjoying it to.

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