Don't Hate the Movie, Hate the Player
Mission: Impossible III / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | May 15, 2006 | Comments ()
Some of you are going to be so disappointed …
Not in Mission: Impossible III — which was breathtakingly mindless, but breathtaking nonetheless — but in the fact that a site many of you have trusted and relied upon to make your weekend moviegoing plans is actually encouraging you to see a Tom Cruise flick. I know, I know: He’s a blight on society; he’s a miniature boy-wonder farce, all pearly whites and no soul, a cynical PR ploy embodied in a perfectly symmetrical 5’4” frame that dazzles and shines like a newly minted penny (though his public persona carries about half that value). And, unless you’ve been cryogenically frozen and placed upon a mantle as your family’s icicle-keepsake, there is no getting around this man; the mainstream media, the tabloids, the gossip blogs, and even religious pamphlets have poured Mr. Cruise’s personal life down your gullet like a half-gallon of malt liquor with day-old gravy skin, and all the pre-passing-out regurgitation in the world ain’t gonna prevent the inevitable hangover.
But, hell if the man doesn’t make a fine goddamn movie. In many ways, in fact, Cruise is a model leading man — as an actor, he’s the epitome of bland competence, a man perfectly capable of delivering a performance remarkable only for its ability not to overshadow the script or the spectacle. He’s an affectation-free mouthpiece for the source material, and when it’s good (Jerry Maguire, Rain Man, Magnolia, A Few Good Men, and even Vanilla Sky), Cruise gets all the credit, and when it’s bad (Eyes Wide Shut, The Firm, Interview with the Vampire), all the blame gets shifted to the script or the director — and why shouldn’t it? Cruise, after all, is just a blank piece of paper wrapped in a glossy cover — blaming him for the occasional failure of his movies would be tantamount to blaming a shitty novel on its font.
Which is why it’s been so important for Tom Cruise to pick the right project and, if anything, that’s where his talent lies. After all, it’s hard to go wrong when you’re working with Cameron Crowe, Paul Thomas Anderson, Barry Levinson, Rob Reiner, and arguably Steven Spielberg in their primes (and the reason why M:i:II was such an overblown abomination was because he drafted John Woo, whose lack of subtlety, Old-West machismo, and penchant for slow-mo, double guns, and doves did not fit the bill for an action flick heavily grounded in gadget-laden espionage). So it’s little surprise that Cruise would enroll the go-to wunderkind of the day, J.J. Abrams, to both write and direct M:i:III. Abrams, of course, mastered the spy game with “Alias,” excelled in the art of mystery in “Lost,” and cut his teeth in character development with “Felicity,” which — with apologies to “Sports Night” — possessed the most thoroughly fleshed-out television characters in recent memory (is it OK to admit a fondness for “Felicity” yet, or have I lost you?). And, because Abrams has a knack for introducing engrossing one-note premises seemingly built only to last 22 episodes before expiring, (e.g., Ben or Noel, Rambaldi, The Prophecy, The Others, The Numbers, and The Dharma Initiative) he seems particularly well suited to preside over a self-contained 126-minute storyline that does not rely on testing the audience’s patience to sustain itself.
And what of the end product? Well, it is a summer blockbuster that befits our current energy crisis: an adrenaline-fueled, high-octane, diesel-powered, heart-surging cinematic vehicle that picks your ass up and takes you speeding through the scenic route before ultimately running out of gas and leaving you on the curb with your pants around your ankles, spent, exhausted, and in desperate need of a Parliament Light. But, to turn that analogy in a different direction, M:i:III is probably also a lot like that drunk frat boy you brought home the other night — a helluva ride, but I wouldn’t go picking his brain if I were you, because you may soon realize that, underneath the tousled hair and the $20,000 orthodontics, he’s about as whip-smart as your cat’s scratching post. But, then again, you didn’t put on those fuck-me boots and that halter top to discuss Rousseau while Dire Straits was playing on the jukebox, now did you? All I’m saying is, if you’re going out to watch a $185 million action film, dress appropriately.
As M:i:III begins, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is a retired-agent-cum-spy-trainer, engaged to a nurse and living the laid-back Murtaughian lifestyle. Unfortunately, since ’70s disco and fetching ice for the engagement party does not a good blockbuster make, he is soon called back to the office by a co-worker (Billy Crudup) after his protege, Lindsey (Keri Russell, who finally gets to hold some fucking steel), is kidnapped during her investigation of a psychopathic international arms dealer, Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who amazes as only Hoffman can). And psychopathic international arms dealers don’t just go around kidnapping willowy gun-wielding blondes without getting on Ethan Hunt’s last goddamn nerve, as suggested by the disappearance of those aforementioned pearly whites, which suddenly become hidden behind the don’t-fuck-with-me grit that Cruise carries with him the rest of the picture while he saves the Chesapeake Bay bridge from a missile barrage, engages in a helicopter chase through a German wind farm, goes Scooby-Doo at the Vatican, and yippee-ki-yays between Shanghai skyscrapers like a hairless ape hellbent on kicking some sweet, sweet baboon ass.
Yeah. He’s accepted the mission, all right. But hell if Davian doesn’t go and kidnap the man’s poor wife (Michelle Monaghan), who finds it ever-so-strange that her husband (whom she believes to be a traffic controller) is tangled up with the likes of this man, who is not only a psychopathic international arms dealer but, apparently, got his start in the Abu Ghraib prison system, cause this motherfucker is skilled in the art of torture. In this mission, people get killed, and it’s not like in a Michael Bay film, where only the grizzled, gun-slinging, non-Caucasian asshole gets offed. In M:i:III, people you are attached to on an emotional level are cashed. And it’s harsh.
Here, I’d offer more plot details, but 1) I’d hate to give anything away, and 2) it’s mostly incoherent anyway; suffice it to say, it’s about a rabbit’s foot that could do enough damage to the Middle East to make way for a lot of Wal-Marts. But it is a nice change of pace for Abrams, who has finally created a mystery that no one cares about solving, just so long as shit blows up. And boy does it. In his directorial debut, it’s hard to nitpick at Abrams’ efforts, though M:i:III in its entirety does look and feel remarkably similar to a super-sized “Alias” episode, right down to the faux-Marshall character and an unnecessary appearance from Abrams hanger-on Greg Grunberg (who, as hangers-on go, is always welcome). The writing itself is spare and mostly sentiment-free and, though I’d be hard pressed to call any of the requisite action-flick one-liners clever, they thankfully do not inspire ironic guffaws. If I had to take issue with anything, however, it’s in the way that Abrams (who only directed a handful of his own television episodes) borrows a lot of his shots from both “Alias” and — in the few romantic moments — “Felicity,” which many of the bigger Abramites will no doubt recognize. But even that is a minor quibble because, recycled or not, they work in the context of a TV series brought to the big screen.
But maybe the best thing about Mission: Impossible III is the fact that it’s so kinetically quick and convincing, even in its utter implausibility, that it’s easy to forget for a couple of hours that Ethan Hunt in real life is actually engaged to Joey Potter and the new father of what’s sure to be one seriously messed-up kid. Unfortunately, the second you get home and turn on the TV or browse the Internet, you’re sure to be reminded of it, in all its sadistic asexual glory. And, certainly, I understand just as much as anyone if you decide to take principled stand against Tom Cruise and avoid M:i:III for reasons having to do with your own self-respect but, if you do, you should probably know you’re missing a damn fine movie.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.