[With the upcoming release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, we’re reposting our retrospective series on the Mission: Impossible franchise.]
When Tom Cruise returned to the Mission: Impossible franchise six years later, life was very different for the movie star, and while Ethan Hunt isn’t an autobiographical character, he does reflect what the actor’s personal life, which, in 2006, was trying to prove that he could be a family man. Yes, Cruise had already been married and had two adopted children, but he was now in a serious relationship with Katie Holmes, and the emphasis on a family life carried over into his blockbuster franchise, which gave the movie and the character some new and welcome perspective.
In Mission: Impossible III, Ethan is about to get married to Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who thinks he works at the Virginia Department of Transportation. However, he’s still secretly working for the IMF, but as a teacher rather than a field agent. When arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) kidnaps Agent Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell), one of Ethan’s former students, he goes to rescue her. He’s too late, and his mission for revenge leads him to try and track down “The Rabbit’s Foot”, a weapon of indescribable destruction whose specifics are left purposely vague to the point where someone may as well say it was invented by Reginald H. MacGuffin.
For reasons that remain difficult for me to explain now, I watched director J.J. Abrams’ ABC spy series Alias when it was on the air, and so when I look at Mission: Impossible III, all I see is one long episode of the show because he relies on the same structure (episodes usually started in medias res) and plot devices (disguises and duplicity around headquarters). But the structure provides a comfort zone for Abrams, who was also well attuned to the material, which is about a spy trying to balance a personal life with work in covert operations.
It’s refreshing to go from Mission: Impossible II, which has no character development for Ethan Hunt, to M:I 3, which really tries to go in depth with his life and the complications of being tied to a secret organization. It’s not fresh ground for a spy story, but it’s fresh for the Mission: Impossible film series and something that gives Cruise a little bit more room to stretch his dramatic muscles. It gives Ethan personal stakes because the entire story is a test of his belief that he can somehow have it all even if “having it all” means lying to his fiancée about his top secret work.
Thankfully, Mission: Impossible III moves so quickly that there’s no time to dwell on its flaws while you’re watching the movie. Abrams leans heavily into the action aspect of the story and while the scene at the Vatican where Ethan and his team kidnap Davian feels like a true Mission: Impossible set piece, the film has far more affection for generic shootouts and explosions. When Ethan goes in to rescue Lindsey, he doesn’t do it with lots of fancy acrobatics and stealth. He brings in gigantic guns and demolition charges. It’s a smash-and-grab ex-fil, but it’s still incredibly entertaining, especially for the brief time when Russell gets in on the action.
The story still has a problem with how it handles women, and for the first three movies, The Mission: Impossible series doesn’t seem to know how to make its female characters more than background or damsels in distress. While Abrams’ film doesn’t venture anywhere near the disastrous Mission: Impossible II, Maggie Q, who plays team member Zhen Lei, is completely wasted along with Monaghan.
Where Mission: Impossible III stands out is the villain with Hoffman giving one of the best performances of his career. It’s one thing to take a well-written character and give an outstanding performance; it’s another to take a nothing character and make him unforgettable. On the page, Davian is a bland antagonist, but Hoffman brilliantly spun the villain to make him condescending and indifferent. It’s such a smart choice because it makes sense for a powerful villain to look down on the hero rather than respecting him as an equal. I love every second of Hoffman’s condescending, dispassionate performance. Never has ennui been so commanding.
Hoffman’s performance, the action, and giving Ethan a real character arc help to mask the film’s superficial and shallow plot, although it can’t cover up co-writer Roberto Orci’s truther bullshit when it’s revealed that Ethan’s boss, John Musgrave (Billy Crudup), was behind the nefarious scheme all along. When Jim Phelps turned out to be a traitor in the first movie, it was a dark passing of the torch combined with an acknowledgement that the spy genre is in a difficult place without the Cold War. Here, it’s a dumb and unnecessary twist, especially since it shows Ethan wasn’t smart enough to figure it out on his own like he did with Phelps.
At its best, Mission: Impossible III is a breezy action film with some terrific performances (Simon Pegg and Laurence Fisburne are scene stealers as IMF Technician Benji Dunn and IMF Head Theodore Brassel, respectively), but it still has trouble finding the right balance for the franchise’s identity. It never gets the right team dynamic because while it does deepen the friendship between Ethan and Luther (Ving Rhames), Zhen and Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) are as ancillary as that Australian guy from M:I 2. Mission: Impossible III is entertaining, but still doesn’t reach the heights of the series despite having more gadgets than M:I 2 and the requisite heist scene.
It wasn’t until the next mission that everything fell into place and the franchise finally discovered the right balance of action, humor, characters, and story.
Tomorrow: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol