There's a scene late in Mission: Impossible III in which IMF (Impossible Missions Force) agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) employs the fulcrum principle to get from one dizzyingly high skyscraper to an adjoining one a good distance away. He takes a leap from a height that would cause mere mortals to faint just from looking over the building's edge, swings Spider-Man-style up and down and all around, hits the glass rooftop, starts sliding in the direction of terra firma, shoots two enemy agents on either side of him while still speeding downward headfirst, and then catches himself before plunging to the concrete jungle below. Not to be a spoilsport, but this scene is simply ridiculous. It's insulting in its incredulity. It's utterly preposterous in its excesses. It's ... it's ... oh, why fight it? Above all, the scene is exciting, imaginative and cool as all get-out.
That's basically the entire movie in a nutshell. Action flicks -- and especially action sequels -- no longer possess the power to automatically engage popcorn-munching audiences, as it's gotten to the point where one explosion or car chase pretty much looks like the next. Certainly, that's where we found ourselves at the end of the previous franchise entry. While 1996's Mission: Impossible, the first film based on the popular '60s TV show, featured some wild action scenes -- remember that helicopter in the train tunnel? -- it was, for better or worse, mostly memorable for Brian De Palma's stylish direction (that's the "for better" part) and a screenplay that, for all its clever jigsaw plotting, left too many moviegoers vigorously scratching their heads (that's the "for worse" part). The 2000 sequel elected to focus more on the wham-pow-bang factor, but as (over) directed by John Woo, the movie proved to be a soulless enterprise, the sort of noisy, clunky, chaotic blockbuster that gives summer movies a bad name in the first place.
Mission: Impossible III is a huge improvement over its immediate predecessor and just barely manages to top the first film for sheer breathless excitement. Instead of going for an established director like De Palma or Woo, Paramount Pictures and producer-star Cruise elected to take a chance on J.J. Abrams, who began his career as a scripter of mediocre movies (Armageddon, Regarding Henry) before being born again as the creator of the acclaimed TV hits Alias and Lost. Applying what he learned on those shows (especially Alias, which shares this franchise's fondness for spy games), Abrams, with an assist from his Alias co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, has pumped new life into the M:I template. And even if this turns out to be the last movie in the series, Abrams at least ensures it's being sent off on a high note.
"This Time, It's Personal" might as well have been the movie's tagline, given all the prerelease chatter on how this film allows us to see Ethan Hunt the man as opposed to Ethan Hunt the superman. I don't want to overplay the domesticity -- there are no scenes that find Ethan taking out the trash or scrubbing the household toilets -- but Abrams does provide Ethan with a life away from the job. And he's had a reassignment since we last saw him: He's no longer working as a field agent but rather as an instructor of new recruits, thus allowing him to spend more time with his blissfully out-of-the-loop fiancée Julia (Michelle Monaghan) and also making it easier to convince her that he's a regular working stiff like everyone else (his front is a transportation department employee).
But a dangerous mission beckons and, of course, he chooses to accept it. This assignment is also tainted with a whiff of the personal, as he learns that his best student, Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell, star of Abrams' first series, Felicity), has disappeared while investigating the shady affairs of weapons dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Protectively viewing Lindsey like a little sister, he agrees to take charge of a rescue team consisting of Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, the only actor besides Cruise to appear in all three films), Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen (Maggie Q). This mission jump-starts the seething feud between Ethan and Owen, which becomes -- there's that word again -- personal once Owen promises to track down and hurt the woman in Ethan's life.
Look, I'm as sick of hearing about Cruise's off-screen nonsense as anyone else -- you can't avoid it even if you want to (and I want to, really, really want to!). But the great thing about the magic of the movies is that it immerses us in fantasy worlds that more often than not allow us to disengage from real-life baggage. In other words, Cruise is accomplished -- and canny -- enough to know that a well-oiled summer flick is just the item to make us all forgive him -- at least temporarily -- for his indiscretions. (We even have a precedence in last summer's War of the Worlds, which came out when people were already getting tired of Cruise and yet still grossed $234 million stateside.) While occasionally underrated, he's nevertheless not the most versatile actor around, but he plays well to his strengths (bonus points, too, for performing many of his own stunts).
Yet the performance of note in Mission: Impossible III belongs to Philip Seymour Hoffman, fresh from winning an Oscar for last fall's Capote. It's a compliment when I state that Hoffman's Owen Davian would have made a formidable Bond villain, and it's a shame that the part isn't much larger. Owen's icy stare and reptilian movements make it clear that he's as ruthless as he is humorless, and when a woman spills a drink on him during a fancy soiree, his look suggests that he'd kill her on the spot if it weren't for hundreds of pesky eyewitnesses surrounding them.
Mission: Impossible was established as a vanity franchise for Cruise -- as an example, this film's press kit offers 18 photos of Cruise and only one of Hoffman -- yet Hoffman's work marks this as the first time that the attention gets shifted away from the marquee attraction. Before now, it's a development that I would have considered, well, impossible.