Friday, May 12, 2006

Review: Mission: Impossible: III

There's two stories here, one about the mid-career crisis of a Hollywood star, and the other about the summer's first big blockbuster film.

The first story is kind of stupid. Tom Cruise always enjoyed a charmed existence in that his personal life was never a bigger story than his career; his publicists always kept the public eye fixed on Cruise on the screen--even as he married and divorced Nicole Kidman (albeit, before Kidman became a perennial Oscar contender), converted from Catholicism (he was once going to be a priest) to Scientology, and suffered all sorts of rumors that he's gay.

Now, like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, and Jennifer Lopez, Cruise is points in the Bill Simmons's Us Weekly Fantasy League first, a superstar actor second. And not in a good way. "Jumping the couch" may just replace "jumping the shark," in our cultural vocabulary.

None of this has any relevance to Mission: Impossible: III, a film more offensive for its overuse of colons than for Tom Cruise's views on Scientology. Actually, the colons might be the only offensive thing about M:I:III, which is a bit of faint praise. The film's a competent popcorn diversion, consisting of chases, gunfights, explosions, and stunts. As they say on the shampoo bottle, "Lather, rinse, repeat." M:I:III exists entirely in the moment, and is forgotten almost as soon as the end credits start to roll.

The requisite plot summary: Cruise's super-spy/aerialist, Ethan Hunt, has gone all Maverick-at-the-end-of-Top-Gun on us, and given up the field for a job training recruits at the Impossible Missions Academy. He's even gone domestic, and gotten engaged to a nurse who thinks that he's a civil servant traffic consultant. Going back to the world outside the movie for just one second, it's a bit unfortunate that Michele Monaghan, who plays the nurse, is a dead ringer for Cruise's baby-momma--just a bit sexier, for certain.

If we simply count the number of summer action films about spies (lots) against the ones about teachers (few) and traffic consultants (none, I think), we get a fair feeling that this won't last. Needless to say, up shows Cruise's spy middle manager, Billy Crudup, to tell Hunt that even though he tries to get out, they keep pulling him back in!

It's not even as dramatic as that, but it brings up a question: if you're constantly meeting with your superiors, what's the point of receiving those mission briefings that will self-destruct in five seconds? Throughout the Mission: Impossible series, Cruise has always brought in Hunt's bosses, usually getting pretty high-profile actors for those roles (Henry Czerny in the first film; Anthony Hopkins in the second; Crudup and Laurence Fishburne in this installment). Now I know that all pretense that this Mission: Impossible has anything to do with the classic TV series went out the window in the second film; all that's left now is the self-destructing tapes, latex masks, and occassional use of the Lalo Shifrin theme music.

But one of the cooler things about the Mission: Impossible TV series was that Jim Phelps was pretty much his own boss. The Impossible Missions Force was America's introduction to freelance work: your employer communicates just by sending you notes; if you screw up, they'll put it all on you; if you need any help, hire it yourself, and they're your problem--the employer isn't going to be withholding social security or paying workers' comp for your guys. I'm not the world's foremost expert on the original series, but I don't remember Jim's superiors ever coming by to chew him out or tell him how to do his job.

Another cool thing about the original series was that they relied less on guns and violence than on deception and cunning. Usually, the gang didn't actually kill anyone, but rather tricked various bad guys into doing each other in. But you can't have the typical summer blockbuster action set pieces that way, so subtlety's out the window in M:I:III.

Most of the gunfire revolves around, but doesn't actually involve, a hammy and vengeful arms dealer, played by 2005 Best Actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and a super-secret...something. The fact that we never discover what the secret thing does is part of director JJ Abrams' contribution to the film, as M:I:III is constantly winking at the audience. We have a scene where Cruise rides a motorcycle onto an airfield that is straight out of Top Gun, a character laughing aloud over the absurd name of Hunt's super-secret agency, and the film's best action sequence involves an aerial assault on a bridge straight out of James Cameron's True Lies.

In the end, Abrams seems to say, what does it matter what the McGuffin everyone's fighting over actually is? It's really just an excuse for an action movie, chases and explosions. And that about says it all. Very mild recommend.

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