JJ Abrams wasn’t exactly an unknown quantity when MI:III was made, but he was far from the Hollywood behemoth he is today, love him or hate him (his output can be quite divisive, to say the least – though MI: III was actually his debut movie as director). He had been churning out super-spy TV show Alias for a number of years at this point and, though it started strongly, it devolved into an incredibly daft, very convoluted show with elements such as ‘DNA machines’ able to alter the appearance of agents using, it seems, nothing more than a standard desktop computer.
Given that Alias featured network(s) of clandestine spies, double crossing agents and potentially apocalyptic conspiracies, it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that Abrams was chosen to bring the Mission Impossible franchise back from the dead, six years after John Woo’s movie featured so much slow motion that the series just seemed to lose any momentum it may have been building. Though the second instalment was the highest grossing film in the year it was released – way back in 2000 – audiences didn’t seem to be clamouring for any further movies in the series (not only that, but Tom Cruise’s public image was at its lowest point, following the infamous couch jumping and anti-psychiatry controversies in 2005).
Perhaps, following the second film, I’d also lost interest too. I remembered a great deal of Mission Impossible 2 before rewatching it for my retrospective; I was also incredibly familiar with the first film when seeing it again recently. Perhaps that’s because I’d seen them a lot back when they were first released; even the second, as it was an early showcase for my then-newly acquired DVD player (it was quite a step up from VHS – yes, I’m old). I struggled to remember anything from this entry aside from the great opening sequence.
However, given the box office of the previous two films, it’s no wonder that it eventually found its way back to cinemas. One of the biggest criticisms of the second film – and, to a lesser extent, given that it was integrated so well into the story, of the first film too – is that it was nothing more than The Tom Cruise Experience, writ large. Tom on holiday rock climbing. Tom with his fancy new hairdo. Tom being an amazing lover. Tom being a vengeful, martial-arts dispensing force of nature. Tom. Tom. Tom.
Though that’s not entirely eliminated in the third film – nor should this be expected, given that his character, Ethan Hunt, is the main protagonist of the movies and Cruise co-produces the franchise – we do have more of an ensemble feel here, with Hunt also having moved away from field work and into training IMF agents at the outset.
Or at least, that status quo is established in flashback once we’re past the opening scene – in which the brilliant (and much missed) Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sadistic arms dealer taunts a captured Hunt. It’s a bold move to open with a scene so far along in the narrative, but in fairness it does immediately make us sit up and take notice, perhaps in a way we hadn’t done through the entirety of the deservedly maligned second movie. It doesn’t hurt that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is absolutely electrifying.
We soon find out that the stakes here are very personal for Ethan Hunt; though this again threatens to turn the franchise into Tom’s show, thankfully there’s more of a team vibe as we move through the proceedings this time around – with, mercifully, no comedy Aussie IMF agents – and though Simon Pegg does seem to fill the comic relief void at first (albeit briefly), he’s at least a lot more competent than John Polson’s frankly pointless addition to the ‘team’ in the previous film.
There’s a sense with MI: III that the franchise is finding its feet again, with some big scale action sequences and Tom doing his leaping off buildings thing, which seems to have become a series staple. There’s also, notably, a fantastic sequence which explains away the uncannily accurate masks and voice changers that the IMF use, all during a mission that goes pretty smoothly for our agents.
One of the biggest weaknesses is in the MacGuffin that everyone’s chasing – known only as The Rabbit’s Foot. We never get a sense of what it is except for a theory from Simon Pegg’s character: that something so expensive and sought after must be an apocalyptic bio-weapon; an ‘Anti-God’ as he refers to it. Though we never find out, once the dust has settled it doesn’t seem that it’s that essential, really – our heroes need it and they’re going to do whatever it takes to get it. I guess the explanation was deemed extraneous to the action.
Another issue I had is that, this time around, Hunt has settled down and is about to get married to Michelle Monaghan’s Julia – but I didn’t feel there was ever a sense of exactly why this person would be the one to lead him away from his IMF career; she seems to be a bit of a MacGuffin herself, in all honesty. Another female character, Keri Russell’s IMF agent Farris, is another excuse to give Hunt some motivation to propel the plot forward.
And that Kanye West theme? Utterly dire, but thankfully relegated to the closing credits.
However, these are nitpicks. The film moves at lightning speed across a number of big international locations, with some superb action set-pieces and great performances from the cast. Laurence Fishburne in particular absolutely steals every scene he’s in, with his character benefiting from some fantastic dialogue.
There’s a brilliantly set up heist later on in the film in which we don’t even see the main event; instead, we cut between the team members, tensely waiting for a sign that Hunt has survived and succeeded in his mission before extracting him. Given how much we usually focus on Hunt’s antics, regardless of what they are, this was a refreshing touch in my opinion – and by this stage in the film, as well as after this scene, we get plenty of Cruise-standard action anyway.
With the pacing and scale, it feels like a much more contemporary film than the first, which does at times feel a little quaint in 2019 (though hardly geriatric, 1996 is a long time ago in movie-making terms). Distancing itself far from the disastrous second film, MI: III is a great addition to the franchise in its own right that doesn’t require viewing of either of the previous films to be enjoyed, which in itself is quite an achievement. Though I’d still say the first is an essential step in seeing where Hunt has come from – and how far he’s come since then – it just adds more weight to my theory that you can skip the second part entirely without missing anything of value; the only giveaway being the numbering in the title – which of course, starting with the fourth film in the franchise, they dropped anyway.
So MI: III successfully reinvigorated the franchise then – can part four, the Brad Bird-directed Ghost Protocol, keep the winning streak going? We’ll find out soon!
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