Super-spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is shackled to a chair. Battered, bruised, and desperate, he looks at his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) seated across from him. Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), their captor, points a gun at Julia’s head. “I’m going to count to ten. If you don’t tell me where the Rabbit’s Foot is, I’m going to kill her,” he says. Ethan tries to smooth-talk Davian, who won’t hear any of it. Ethan’s confidence quickly turns to frantic pleading as Davian’s count approaches ten.
Mission: Impossible III opens with this taut scene, an unexpected moment of complete vulnerability for the hero. For a minute, I’m hopeful that the film will be a gritty, intense, wildly entertaining blockbuster with a post-modern action hero. What comes next proves to get the ‘entertaining’ part right, but leaves out everything else.
Oh sure, the film has its fair share of violent and spectacular scenes. Ethan’s spy team finds itself spinning from a German steam and sparks factory to the Vatican to Langley, never bothering to explain why things are happening where they are, other than that the locations look cool. A threadbare plot exists concerning a super-weapon and an arms dealer, as well as the kind of inter-agency back stabbing that 24 does much better. (Then again, 24 does everything better and is a TV show, so the comparison may not be fair.)
Speaking of TV shows, Tom Cruise picked J.J. Abrams, creator of Alias and Lost, to direct Mission: Impossible III. He may be a first-time director, but his skills may be a moot point, as the film clearly belongs to Cruise. I’m reminded of how Stanley Kubrick supposedly referred to himself as hired help for Kirk Douglas when talking about Spartacus. Cruise features in virtually every scene, the camera never forgetting to frame him in macho, heroic close-ups. He looks good, despite age creeping in, though the formula gets tiresome quickly. I’d like to see more of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s gruff, sadistic villain, but unfortunately his screen time doesn’t surpass 20 minutes.
In Roger Ebert’s review, Ebert makes a great case against the MacGuffin used by the film, a super-weapon called the Rabbit’s Foot that never receives an explanation. I take a different point of view; the film’s Macguffin isn’t the Rabbit’s Foot, but Julia, Ethan’s wife. The film quickly establishes Julia as a hopelessly cute but bland love interest, her primary purpose being to smile when safe and sob fearfully when threatened.
Why not expand on their relationship? When they marry, Julia believes Ethan to be a traffic executive, which says little for both of them. She doesn’t pay enough attention to her husband, and he has no problem concealing crucial details of his life from his wife, details that eventually get her kidnapped and tortured. Instead of portraying their relationship as childishly affectionate, why not be provocative and seriously explore the pitfalls of Ethan’s double life? In a brief scene, Ethan’s partners insist that normal relationships are impossible for men such as them, and briefly discuss how it affects their edgy existence. I’d gladly trade a $30 million action sequence for a couple more scenes like that discussion.