“Have you been away so long you’ve forgotten how good we really are?” Luther Strickell (Ving Rhames) chides Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) early in Mission: Impossible III.
Just how good are the Impossible Missions Force? So awesomely good, it seems there is nothing for Mission: Impossible movies to be about unless some IMF agent or official, usually one of Hunt’s bosses, is secretly a traitor working against the IMF, posing such a threat that Hunt himself must go rogue in order to defeat him. If it weren’t for rogue IMF agents battling each other in every movie, there would be nothing to challenge the IMF.
You’d like to think an agency as elite as the IMF would do a better job at things like creating esprit de corps and weeding out the bad apples, especially when the stakes are as high as they tend to get in this game. In the original Brian De Palma film, an agency traitor nearly sold off the identities of every undercover agent in the world. In the John Woo sequel, another rogue agent tried to profiteer from a viral bioweapon that kills within hours. I hate it when that happens.
This time the objective is — well, something called the Rabbit’s Foot. I can’t tell you what it is, because then I’d have to kill you, or maybe the filmmakers would have to kill me, I forget. All I know is, it’s smaller than a breadbox, and yet another renegade IMF official is working with the bad guys to try to acquire it, which means it’s really important. At the end of the film, about to walk away from the IMF (again), Hunt asks one of the IMF honchos who was not the bad guy what the Rabbit’s Foot is. “I’ll tell you if you promise to stay,” the honcho bargains, but Hunt decides that he’s just as happy to walk away. In my theater seat, I felt more or less the same way, I guess.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Mission: Impossible III, sort of. In particular the op at Vatican City, which involves sequences set at the Tiber River, St. Peter’s Square, the catacombs, and various locations within the Vatican, was fun. (According to the production notes, scenes inside the Vatican were really shot at a palace in Florence.) Cruise may be an outspoken Scientologist, but for exotic appeal you don’t see him breaking into some Church of Scientology headquarters somewhere. The sight of Cruise in a cassock and biretta alone has a certain blink factor; Hollywood anti-Catholicism being what it is at the moment, just having a sequence set at a Vatican soirée without any gratuitous swipes at the Church or the clergy is a refreshing change.
For that matter, in this film we see one IMF agent buried and another married, both times with a priest officiating. The priest at the wedding — a chaplain at the hospital where Hunt’s fiancée Julia (appealing Michelle Monaghan) works, to whom Hunt and Julia go when they spontaneously decide to elope — even makes a point that the wedding vows are to be dissolved only by death, which does not seem to be a tenet of Scientology. (There is also some talk about trust and even — get this — having kids in connection with marriage. Imagine that. Oh, and a bit of God-talk from the priest at the funeral.) Hunt himself may not exactly be a good Catholic (he and Julia are living together when the film opens), but it’s nice to see the Catholic Church of Hollywood on a pretty good day.
In addition to a bit of God-talk, there is also some anti-God talk, which is not talk that is anti-God, but talk about something called “the anti-God.” “The anti-God” turns out to be an unnecessarily shocking name for something that sounds sort of like a cross between a universal solvent and M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, which destroys all life on earth. Perhaps the Rabbit’s Foot is one of these. Or not.
Co-written and directed by first-time feature director J.J. Abrams, creator of the hit TV shows “Lost” and “Alias,” Mission: Impossible III focuses not on what is at stake for the world, but what is at stake for Ethan, who has retired from field work and trains agents while trying to build an ordinary life with Julia, a nurse who thinks he works as a traffic engineer.
The film ups the ante by creating a truly chilling, implacable villain in black marketeer Owen Davian, played with intimidating authority by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Davian is not just a typical movie bad guy, but a genuine monster, and from the opening scene it’s obvious that Hunt, at best a lightweight movie hero, is out of his league. An analogous point could be made about the two actors, but that would be shooting fish in a barrel.
The upside is that for the first time a Mission: Impossible movie has a level of emotional urgency. The downside is, having seen it, I’m not sure I want emotional urgency in a Mission: Impossible movie. The best scene in any of the M:I films remains the first film’s suspenseful CIA break-in, which was a lark. By contrast, the same film’s opening act, in which Hunt’s team is killed, gets the whole franchise off on the wrong foot.
Similarly, M:I‑III is at its best at the Vatican op, when Ethan and his pleasant but underused team are having fun. (Rhames provides technical support as usual, Hong Kong action star Maggie Q runs interference in a slinky, barely-there evening gown, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is up to something or other in water mains and the catacombs, I’m not sure what.) There’s also a diverting set piece in Shanghai, although the business about Hunt’s chute not working if he doesn’t jump from enough of a height bothers me. I’m pretty sure the chute he used to escape from a building in M:I‑II didn’t work like that.
But when the emotions turn serious and even grim, as they do for too much of the film, it takes a toll. Perhaps it is necessary to shoot the fish in the barrel after all: Cruise is at his best flashing his cocky grin or acting really, really focused. He should not ever be asked to convince anyone that he cares, or that he is suffering.
Despite its flaws, M:I‑III is competent, disposable entertainment. There’s nothing here that really grabs you like the first film’s CIA break-in, but it doesn’t leave a sour taste like Woo’s M:I‑II. Even so, in the post-007 world of Jason Bourne, that may not be enough. The IMF has perhaps outlived its usefulness. At the very least, there needs to be an organizational shakeup, and maybe some congressional oversight or something, to address the agency’s chronic internal security issues.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.