A third movie in the series, a third director and it’s anyone’s guess how it will turn out. Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible series, this time working with first time movie director and Lost and Alias producer J.J. Abrams. The first installment was a solid double off the center field wall. The second movie was a ground out to the shortstop. The third one… call it a sacrifice fly to right field that at least moves the runner into scoring position.
The familiar character of Ethan Hunt has retired from field work and, though maintaining a double identity to fool civilians – even his fiancée – he now works as an instructor for up and coming IMF agents. One day - you guessed it – John Musgrave, played by Billy Crudup, shows up to ask him to come back to field work to rescue a fellow agent, a woman with whom Hunt developed a strong though platonic bond. Hunt is initially reluctant but – you guessed it – does accept the mission. However, what is supposed to be a quick rescue mission – good job! You guessed it again – is quickly revealed to be a small part of a larger scheme. Ethan follows his clues and comes into conflict with the arch villain Owen Davian, superbly realized by the wonderfully gifted Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The script for the movie is nothing special. It comes up with some clever gadgets, as we might expect, and allows for an ample offering of action and adventure. The characters in the film live and die on the actors’ merits alone; the script does little to flesh them out, though there are some clever lines of dialogue which show that someone was trying for something other than ordinary. In particular, Lawrence Fishburne’s character is blessed with some well-conceived remarks.
With weak characters it is no surprise that there is very little gripping drama in the movie. The best it has to offer in this respect is the opening scene, a clip from the third act to which we realize we will eventually return. Though the scene is a good one, what follows is mostly action. As for the story, it is unremarkable but logically constructed enough to carry the action scenes.
And this is where the movie shines. Mr. Abrams demonstrates some real ability in choreographing the camera and the actors in a scene. It’s not artistic, but it is rock-solid orthodox filmmaking, and he does a great job of getting the adrenaline rushing. There were a few times when I found myself gripping the arms of my theater seat. The visuals are also quite lovely, and to the extent that the movie is well done it is for those reasons. Those and Hoffman’s knock out portrayal of the villain. Hoffman simply must be considered in any serious debate about the best actor of that generation, premature though any such debate might be.