This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
It was an impossible mission indeed: to rescue Hollywood’s most bankable marquee name from the tabloid wilderness. And “Mission: Impossible III” does return a little luster to Tom Cruise’s falling star. But it takes a lot of spit and polish to put the shine back, and no expense was spared. This is a major studio pulling out all the stops, hell-bent on making you thank them for putting on the show at the cheap, cheap price of $10.50 a ticket.
A budget that must match the GDP of a third world country, a sexy cast pulled down from the Hollywood heavens, and a hit television show director on the cusp of blockbuster greatness were all employed to breathe life back into Mr. Cruise’s moribund career and franchise. For the most part, the excess of talent works too. “Mission: Impossible III” improves on its mediocre predecessors immensely, and delivers what the trailers promise – breathtaking action, terse, plot-packed dialogue, and Tom Cruise, in all his hyper-sincere beefcake glory.
It’s hard to review a film like “Mission: Impossible III” and not reflect on Mr. Cruise’s recent public spectacles. Jokes about his antics on the Oprah Winfrey show, religious proselytizing, and denouncements of psychology are the stuff of late-night television. And even now, those laugh lines already sound cliche; the one-liners are hackneyed.
But Mr. Cruise’s apparent self-destruction parallels another cultural phenomenon: the slow death of the superstar who’s guaranteed box-office gold. Unlike the salad days of the 1990s when stars like Tom Hanks, John Travolta, Jim Carrey, and Sean Connery could be counted on to churn out hits, today’s multiplexes are filled with audiences craving genre, rather than charisma. From the current kings of the box-office – namely family flicks and horror movies – to sequels and adaptations of books, comics, and, in the case of the new “Pirates of the Caribbean” flick, sequels to adaptations of theme parks, movies depend on familiarity to sell. Do you remember the last Harrison Ford movie? If not, there’s a reason – he hasn’t been a huge draw at the box office for quite some time.
Watching Mr. Cruise hoot and holler about how he can cure alcoholics with vitamins and exercise is like witnessing the dwindling power of those rare Hollywood creatures who can command in excess of $20 million a movie, not to mention back-end perks. What we might be also observing is the birth of a new Hollywood that celebrates ensemble acting, excellent storytelling, and unique directing. It’s a lie the film geek cynic in me desperately wants to believe.
But while staring stunned at the cacophony of explosions and thundering helicopters in “Mission: Impossible III,” I couldn’t help dissecting every aspect of Mr. Cruise’s expert, almost athletic, performance: He hits every single note with clinical precision. Every emotion, from anguish to whimsy, is mapped out and executed flawlessly. And in every scene, his eyes quiver with such intensity that I found myself imagining those same lagoon blue eyes – perpetually wet with tears of anger, joy, or fear – in everyday situations. It was creepy wondering if Mr. Cruise eats strawberries or bites his fingernails with similar ocular power and concentration.
Salvaging this aging action star from the gutters of Us Weekly falls squarely on the shoulders of its director and co-screenwriter, J.J. Abrams. The creator of the hit television shows “Alias” and “Lost,” Mr. Abrams has proved his knack for the immensely pleasurable tricks of popcorn thrillers. Here, he retains the flashy style that make “Alias” and “Lost” so popular. His use of flashbacks, red herrings, and subtly sparkling dialogue seems fresh and exciting. Which is probably the reason for the buzz around him – Mr. Abrams knows how to reinvigorate the genre, while being faithful to its core values.
And the best choice Mr. Abrams makes in “MI: III” is to go back to the original source material of the franchise. The television show was about a team of spies using brains, brawn, and fancy gizmos to pull of not only the impossible, but frequently the improbable. The first two movies in the big-screen franchise almost completely ignored that, casting the unsinkable Ethan Hunt as a solo force to be reckoned with, an American James Bond. Let’s not even mention the incomprehensible design of the original or the replacing of plot with motorcycles in the sequel.
Mr. Abrams presents the IMF, the secret organization with the market cornered on self-destructing apparatuses. He gives Ethan a team vital to the plot, and ensconces our hero in an ensemble that could make Carrot Top look like Olivier. This simplicity is not lost on the story either, which involves a harrowing rescue or two, but revolves around something called “the rabbit foot,” or that favorite Hitchcock device, the MacGuffin. Like the mysterious glowing briefcase in “Pulp Fiction,” the MacGuffin is the seemingly meaningless object that we all want, and will do anything to get. Like deep-fried, bacon-wrapped hot dogs in my case.
That’s the story, everybody wants “the rabbit foot,” but it’s not as linear or easy as that, of course. Mr. Abrams opens the movie at the climax, where a bound Mr. Cruise is forced to watch his newly minted wife cower under the gun of the arch-villain. God bless the cliffhanger, because from that highpoint it’s all down hill, and at a breakneck speed. When we catch up with Ethan Hunt after the iconic burning fuse opening, he is semi-retired and romancing a beautiful woman, satisfied that his life as a government daredevil is over. Of course it isn’t.
It’s not even worth it to explain what happens next, but aficionados of the spy flick will be more than pleased. We’re treated to a thrilling chopper chase between gigantic windmills, an even more thrilling kidnap inside the Vatican, and if that’s not thrilling enough, a numbing sequence set between the modernist skyscrapers of Shanghai. It’s a pretty potent case for moving Spider-man to that newborn metropolis. To those whose tastes are not giant Hollywood epics, steer clear. Otherwise you’ll find yourself pressed into your seat under the weight of Mr. Cruise’s physics-defying super heroics, unable to sneak away.
Which brings us to Mr. Abrams’s second coup, his top-notch cast who all get a moment to displays their wares. It’s a smart, and obvious, choice to not let them wilt in the shadow of the Big Star. As the black-hearted bad guy, recent Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman seems happy to earn a paycheck for simply speaking in a low voice and thinking evil thoughts. He shuffles through the movie and performs his job effortlessly, stealing every scene he’s in and infusing it with a lazy electricity. Delivering a deathtrap speech to Mr. Cruise might not be as demanding as playing Truman Capote, but it’s a testament to his talent that he can hiss the line “I’m going to kill you right in front of her” and make it seem chilling and original.
As Mr. Cruise’s main squeeze, Michelle Monaghan is perky without being precious, vulnerable without being helpless. As she demonstrated in the highly underrated “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” she can alternate between girl next door and vixen. Unfortunately, there is scant chemistry between the two leads, and the romance seems as manufactured as Mr. Cruise’s photo-ops with his wife-to-be Katie Holmes.
As the no-nonsense spy boss, Laurence Fishburne glowers and rages appropriately, while Ving Rhames imbues every scene with his trademark affability. As the “hot” member of Cruise’s secret team, the mysteriously named Maggie Q is allowed to show some personality and wit while vamping for the camera.
“Mission: Impossible III” displays quite a bit of wit – nearly every main player gets to toss off one ultra-cool laugh line. Which is welcome, as it allows Mr. Cruise to loosen up a little. His recent roster of flicks has been almost devoid of humor, and allowing him to wink a little recalls his work at the height of his powers, as the magnetic Jerry Maguire. It’s these moments, such as when Mr. Cruise marvels at the shooting ability of Ms. Monaghan’s character, that you see a glimmer of hope that this cultural demigod might be in possession of some self-awareness. Make no mistake, “Mission: Impossible III” is a cartoon of the highest order and quality – but there are still comet flashes of humanity here and there.