Mission: Impossible III

Summer in Hollywood began with a big bang courtesy of TV guru (but first-time feature director) J.J. Abrams and established commodity Tom Cruise. Packed with big thrills, emotional chills and brutal kills, Mission: Impossible III has it all and then some. It’s on DVD today.

The TV series that spawned the film franchise was always too cool for school, mixing spy stories and cutting-edge gadgets with heavy-hitting talent like Peter Graves and Martin Landau. It ran for 168 episodes and spawned a brief 50-episode revival in 1988 that teamed Jim Phelps (Graves) with a new Impossible Missions Force. The concept was perfectly suited for a big screen adaptation, which happened in 1996 and got fans talking in more ways than one. Brian De Palma (Scarface, The Untouchables) directed the cerebral first installment, which introduced Tom Cruise as a bright young IMF agent named Ethan Hunt. The film had the guts to wipe out nearly its entire big-name cast in the first half hour, thus establishing quite effectively that you couldn’t count on anything for the rest of the film. (The credits sequence, an homage to its TV heritage, remains massively cool still today.) The rest of the film certainly didn’t disappoint in terms of surprises. It was the nature of those surprises that soured the film for some hardcore fans, when the villain of the piece turned out to be none other than Jim Phelps (played in the film by Jon Voight). John Woo directed the second, which moved too far away from the team aspect of the franchise and focused most of its attention on overwrought, operatic visuals and close-ups of Cruise’s flowing mane of hair. (An excellent special edition DVD of the first film is available now in a nice two-pack with its sequel.)

Mission: Impossible III isn’t as cerebral a film as De Palma’s, nor is it flashy or over-the-top like Woo’s. What it is is damn near perfect, with credit going to Abrams and Cruise for hammering out a surefire formula that incorporates everything that makes this concept tick.

It’s six years after M:i:II. Ethan still works for IMF, but he’s out of the field. He’s an instructor now, training the next generation of agents. He’s also a fiancĂ©, engaged to a sweet, lovely young doctor named Julia (Michelle Monaghan). But when his most accomplished pupil, Lindsey (Keri Russell), goes missing, fellow agent John Musgrave (Billy Crudup) asks Ethan to take it to the field one more time to find her. It seems that Lindsey was hot on the trail of Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a trafficker in all things illegal and evil whose ability to stay several steps of the world’s law enforcement agencies has become legendarily troubling. And as terrified as Ethan is that his secret life will ruin the life he’s trying to build with Julia, he can’t leave Lindsey to a wolf like Davian. He decides to go in. And he won’t be going alone.

Ving Rhames is back as computer guru Luther Strickell. New recruits Zhen (Maggie Q) and Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) make up the rest of the team; Zhen fights as good as she looks, and Declan can drive or fly anything. After a harrowing, high-action helicopter rescue with flying that would make Han and Chewie proud, Ethan has no choice but to continue the mission until Damian is taken down. What it might cost him, however, could be more terrible than even Ethan can imagine.

What M:i:III does better than either of its predecessors is establish an emotional connection that carries us through right to the end. Any Lost or Alias fan can tell you that Abrams knows how to keep TV viewers coming back week after week; what he accomplishes in M:i:III is the culmination of years of solid storytelling experience combined with a budget and a schedule to do all the things he’s always dreamed of but didn’t have the means to produce within the confines of a TV series. The action here is huge. We’ve all seen that killer shot from the trailer where Ethan is running away from a crashed vehicle and a missile zooms in to blow it sky high, creating a shockwave so powerful that Ethan gets slammed into a parked car so hard that its windows shatter. The sequence, which takes place on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, combines the claustrophobic terror of the ambush scene in Clear and Present Danger with derring-do that would be right at home in an Indiana Jones movie. Every element — from the helicopter filled with snipers to the unmanned Predator drone firing missile after missile to the raw intensity of Ethan’s dire need to survive the assault — comes together so beautifully that there’s more good stuff in that one sequence than everything that happened in the first two films combined.

Because quite frankly, the Ethan/Cruise combo has never been so massively unstoppable. In the trailer, Davian asks Ethan if he has a wife or a girlfriend. “I’m going to find her,” Davian says chillingly. “I’m going to hurt her.” And once the inevitable happens, every word, every movement and every action that comes from Ethan Hunt is driven by a determination that Cruise sells every second he’s on screen.

The reason this film is so much better than its predecessors is that it’s got the heart, the danger and even the humor (thanks to Rhames and Shaun of the Dead genius Simon Pegg as a jittery gadget man) that the other films lacked. It doesn’t take itself as ridiculously seriously, choosing instead to tell an emotional story that grabs you and never lets go. There’s truly a sense of team this time. A sense of family. That’s why it works.

And let’s not forget the contribution of Oscar winning dynamo Hoffman, who from this point on shall be known as Philip Seymour Awesome because he can do anything and he can do it better than you. He’s terrifying here, and brilliantly so.

So be sure to grab this one on DVD; it’s one of my favorite films so far this year. This is it. This is why we go to the movies.