MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006) Movie Review (spoilers)
With this film, the M:I series returned after a 6-year gap, with Paramount bringing aboard Alias creator J.J. Abrams to relaunch the series — which he did so successfully that Paramount entrusted him not only with the ongoing M:I franchise, but with its sister franchise Star Trek as well. But that’s later. For now, M:i:III, as it was styled on posters, was directed by Abrams and written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Abrams.
The cold open this time is a flashforward in which Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt awakens in captivity and is told by Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that he has a bomb in his brain. Davian grills him about the location of something called the Rabbit’s Foot, which Hunt believes he’s already given Davian. Davian threatens the life of a woman who’s clearly dear to Ethan, counting down relentlessly from ten, and Ethan runs the gamut from pleading to bargaining to threatening to reasoning to begging. Ethan Hunt shows far more characterization, and Tom Cruise shows far more acting range, in the first four minutes of this film than in the previous four hours of the franchise. It’s a brilliant, stunning opening and deeply refreshing after the tepid films that preceded it.
Once the countdown ends, we hear an ominous shot, and cut to a brief title sequence, with Abrams’s regular composer Michael Giacchino giving us a big, brassy orchestral variation on Schifrin’s theme. Cut to the woman we just saw threatened, and it’s Michelle Monaghan as Julia Meade, who’s throwing an engagement party with her fiancee, Ethan Hunt, whom she believes to be an employee of the Virginia Department of Transportation. It’s another marvelous scene rich with everyday texture, and it humanizes Ethan and grounds the film in a way that M:I has never been grounded before. This is the first time ever that we’ve been given a reason to identify with Ethan Hunt on an emotional, human level — and it only took ten years for it to happen. At last, our wooden action hero has become a real live boy.
But Ethan gets a call that Giacchino accompanies with Schifrinesque bongos, hinting at intrigue ahead. The call draws him to a 7-Eleven where he’s met by IMF Operations Director John Musgrave (Billy Crudup), offering him a shot at rescuing a trainee of his, Lindsey (Keri Russell, star of Abrams’s Felicity), who’s been taken captive. Ethan resists, since he’s given up field work to become an instructor training new recruits; but Musgrave suggests he buy a disposable camera, which contains the mission briefing, delivered by Musgrave himself (the first time the narrator’s face has ever appeared in a briefing recording). Lindsey was taken in Berlin while searching for arms dealer Davian, and Musgrave has already assigned a team — the second time in the film franchise that we’ve seen the team selected by the director rather than the team leader. The team consists of recurring character Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and newcomers Zhen Lei (Maggie Q) and Declan Gormley (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, future title character of the 2014 Dracula TV series). For some reason, Zhen’s name is pronounced “Zen.” A nickname?
When we see the team’s faces in the briefing video, Giacchino introduces a leitmotif he’ll be using throughout the film, reminiscent of Schifrin’s “The Plot” but more Giacchino-esque. But then Ethan tells Julia that he’s going out of town for a transportation conference, and once he rendezvouses with the rest of the team, I’m delighted to say that Giacchino gives us the first full statement of “The Plot” in the film series to date, and indeed its first full use since the revival episode “For Art’s Sake” 17 years earlier. It’s glorious. The motif is used again in the mission that follows, but it’s a very, very un-IMF-style mission, going in with guns and bombs to break out Lindsey and retrieve Davian’s laptops (which are damaged in an explosion). The team members even have military-style code names for the op: Ethan is “Raider One,” Luther is “Observer,” Zhen is “Groundhog” (since she breaks in from underneath), and Declan is “Phoenix” because he’s the chopper pilot. How come movie-era IMF teams always have chopper pilots? Anyway, Lindsey tries to tell Ethan something for his ears only but doesn’t get the chance due to all the bangs and booms. They get to da choppa but are chased by another choppa through a wind-vane farm, and Lindsey suffers severe pain, and Ethan finds out she has a bomb in her head and tries to fry it by zapping her with a defibrillator, which will stop her heart, but then he plans to zap her again to restart it. Which isn’t actually how defibrillators work (they stop fibrillating hearts but don’t restart stopped ones, despite 99.99999% of their portrayals in fiction), but he doesn’t get the chance to do it anyway, because the action of the chopper chase delays him until she dies (the charge being small enough to be entirely internal but still fatal).
So he’s all bummed out about that, and even worse, he can’t confide in his beloved Julia about his grief. Not to mention that he and Musgrave are raked over the coals by Director Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), who’s something of a blowhard fond of labored and colorful turns of phrase, but he still comes off as a strong authority figure by virtue of being Laurence Fishburne. Anyway, at Lindsey’s funeral, and after some flashbacks to her IMF training (which is all firearms and fighting, not a trace of the deceptions and gadgets and roleplay that are supposed to be the IMF’s bread and butter), he gets a call from a package service that Lindsey sent something to a mailbox she kept for him. It’s a postcard with a microdot, but Luther can’t read the dot without special equipment.
Meanwhile, Simon Pegg makes his debut as Benji Dunn, a colorful IMF technician who’s deciphered enough from Davian’s hard drives to know that he’s planning to steal and sell a valuable weapon called the Rabbit’s Foot, though Benji has no idea what that is, aside from a rambling speculation about high-tech end-of-the-world superweapons. He’ll be in the Vatican soon to meet a buyer, so now the team knows where he’ll be and when. He goes to tell Julia he’ll be away again, and she senses he’s hiding something and asks when he’ll let her in. He responds by convincing her to get married right there and then, which is at once very romantic and very evasive.
We finally get something resembling an apartment scene as Ethan briefs the team on the operation to kidnap Davian. The Vatican sequence is the closest thing in the film to a classic M:I gambit. Ethan and Declan stage a delivery-truck breakdown by the Vatican wall to give Ethan a chance to infiltrate via our next installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things,” this time combined with the Patented Tom Cruise Run as he PTCRs up the wall on a retracting cable. Now, I’m not even going to try to keep track of all the PTCRs in this film; there’s barely a major action sequence here without one. Not since Lee Majors has an action star gotten so much mileage (so to speak) out of his run. Anyway, Ethan spoofs a security camera, then changes to a priest disguise to get in, while Declan gets in as the delivery guy and then changes to a guard’s uniform so he can let in Zhen as a party guest in a fancy sportscar. While Ethan helps Luther break in by vandalizing a wall with artwork painted on it, Zhen enters the party wearing the most amazing red dress I’ve ever seen, and uses a compact to take reference photos of Davian for Luther’s mask-making machine. Yes, the movie’s following the precedent of the revival series in using computer-aided, photo-based technology to manufacture masks, though the specific mechanism is more elaborate. Meanwhile, Luther lectures Ethan about how long-term relationships can’t last in their line of work, until Ethan breaks down and tells him he’s already married Julia. Luther also benefits from the film’s innovative use of actual characterization for its characters, giving Ving Rhames more to work with than he had in the previous film, and making Luther’s friendship with Ethan feel more substantial than it did in the first two.
Zhen then spills a drink on Davian’s shirt so he’ll have to retreat to the bathroom, where Ethan in Davian disguise tackles him and forces him at gunpoint to read from a card so they’ll get enough phonemes for the voice-altering throat gizmo (returning from the previous film) to mimic his voice accurately. I think this is a really clever new touch, a nice bit of comedy that actually makes technical sense. They smuggle Davian out through the ducts while Ethan-Davian lets Zhen pick him up and drive off in her car, which they exit via a sewer cover underneath just before blowing up the car to fake Davian’s death.
On a plane back, Ethan quizzes Davian about the Rabbit’s Foot, but Davian only threatens to find his loved ones and make them suffer and die. He boasts about killing Lindsey for fun in order to provoke Ethan to threaten his life, so that Luther calling his name to stop him will reveal his name to Davian, getting him one step closer to revenge. Although he only gets the first name, so his ability to find out the rest so quickly is a subtle clue that he has help inside the IMF. As is the fact that he’s promptly freed by an attack on the IMF convoy crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which is a nice sequence because we see Ethan and his team trying to protect and help the civilians endangered by the attack. That’s very refreshing after the last film, where Ethan was insanely reckless about civilian safety in his car and motorcycle chases, even the “playful” one with Thandie Newton in the first act. But no sooner is Davian out that he calls Ethan and threatens to kill Julia unless Ethan steals the Rabbit’s Foot for him, so Ethan has to flee the scene in the first car he can steal (which happens to be a high-end Mercedes — what are the odds?) and race to the hospital where she works. But Davian’s man gets her first, and Ethan is confronted by an IMF team sent to arrest him. Even the PTCR can’t save him from a tasering. At HQ, he’s all trussed up and gagged as Brassel bloviates over him, revealing that he’s suspected of being the mole who helped spring Davian because he fled the scene. It’s the second time in three movies that Ethan’s been accused of treason. But Musgrave helps him escape after clandestinely letting him know that the Rabbit’s Foot is in China. (I like how this is done. In the party scene earlier, we saw a bit of Ethan using his lip-reading skills to answer a question Julia was asking in the next room, to set up this later scene where Musgrave mouths his secret message for Ethan to lip-read. Yet it was established very subtly and organically, well-disguised as just a bit of character interplay.)
So Ethan goes to downtown Shanghai — how come superweapon labs are never in boring, non-photogenic locations? — and finds his team has been sent by Musgrave to help him. He devises a plan to get to the skyscraper housing the lab by rappelling across from another building, just what we’d expect from Ethan — but then he starts writing math equations on the window to plot his trajectory, which is not what we would’ve expected from the hotheaded daredevil of the first two films, and is another touch that nicely grounds the film in a less cartoony reality than its predecessor and fleshes out Ethan as an individual. Anyway, we then see him swinging across and breaking in, but we only see the reactions of the other team members waiting outside and having a character moment or two, before the action kicks in again and Ethan makes an abortive and near-lethal BASE jump to get out and then has to contend with Shanghai traffic and weak cell signals before telling Davian he has the RF, just in time to spare Julia’s life. Then he sends the rest of the team home and gets picked up by Davian, and we end up in the scene we saw in the cold open, with Ethan getting the bomb injected into his head. After it appears that Julia’s been killed, Musgrave shows up! He says “It’s complicated,” then tears off “Julia”‘s mask to reveal the face of the translator/security chief (Bahar Soomekh) who failed to protect Davian at the Vatican. Musgrave explains that he’s cultivated Davian as a resource in defiance of Brassel’s orders because he thinks it can do more good to control his arms sales so the IMF/CIA can track down bigger fish through him and take them out. Which sounds like the kind of strategy the intelligence community might actually use, tolerating the little fish as informants to get the big ones, so it’s not that clear why he has to do this in secret. But now it’s personal for Ethan. He gets Musgrave to call the people who have Julia so he can hear her voice, then takes out Musgrave while still shackled to a chair, breaks out, and calls Benji on Musgrave’s phone, getting him to trace the location of the last call.
And this leads to the apotheosis of the Patented Tom Cruise Run as he dashes through the streets of old Shanghai, including a single unbroken shot that must be 30 seconds long. Eventually he finds Julia held captive in a small clinic, but Davian shows up, activates the bomb in Ethan’s head, and fights with him, eventually losing. Ethan frees Julia and gets through her fear and confusion to persuade her to shock him temporarily dead to short out the bomb — after giving her a lightning-quick lesson in firearms. And then, while he’s out of action — I love this part. This part is amazing. Julia gets into a firefight with Musgrave’s men, then takes out Musgrave by chance when he shows up with the Rabbit’s Foot. Then she CPRs and cardiac-thumps Ethan until he revives — so fortunately we never did see a defibrillator being unrealistically used to start a stopped heart. (I wondered why she didn’t find a shot of adrenaline for his heart in the clinic, but maybe she couldn’t read the Chinese labels.) So after being in the conventional role of the love interest and the damsel in distress for most of the film, Julia ends up being the one who single-handedly beats the main villain, retrieves the McGuffin, and saves the hero’s life. It’s an awesome subversion of action-movie gender roles, and particularly refreshing after the last film did so poorly with gender balance. And it suggests that Tom Cruise’s ego is perhaps not as inflated as people tend to think — because he was willing to have himself rendered ineffectual in the climax of the film so that someone else could save the day.
Afterward, Ethan tells Julia the truth about his job, and then, once Brassel clears and thanks him, we see that he’s brought in Julia to meet his team, letting her fully into his life. The story ends back in the everyday, character-oriented place where it began, and reinforces that Julia is Ethan’s equal and his partner, not just his lust object.
I love this film. Okay, granted, it’s no more faithful to the M:I formula than its predecessors, much more a big spy-action movie than a caper movie. It’s also like the previous two films in its reuse of tropes like a traitor in the IMF, Ethan being on the run from the IMF, Ethan being lowered into places on ropes, etc. It’s a blend of the conspiracy-thriller elements of the DePalma film and the over-the-top action elements of the Woo film. And it’s still “The Adventures of Ethan Hunt and His Backup” rather than a full ensemble piece, at least until the climax where Julia becomes the heroine. The Vatican sequence feels like a faster-paced version of a classic M:I operation, but it’s a small portion of the film. I realize now that the first film actually had more classic M:I-style material (the Kiev opening, the Prague operation, the Langley heist) than this one did. So this film is nearly tied with the Woo film for being the least Mission: Impossible-like installment in the franchise. But Abrams, Kurtzman, and Orci took what had been a tepid, shallow action series to this point and brought humanity, thoughtfulness, and wit to it even while maintaining a similarly exaggerated level of action. This is what Abrams did effectively in Alias at its best, balancing larger-than-life spy-fantasy action with everyday, human relationships and emotions, and that human touch makes it easier to enjoy the crazy action because there’s a reason for emotional investment in what’s going on. The film also makes much better use of Tom Cruise as an actor, and makes Ethan Hunt a person at last rather than just an action figure.
As I’ve said before, M:i:III is more like Alias: The Movie than Mission: Impossible. But it’s the first Ethan Hunt movie that’s actually good.
I already gave my thoughts on the fourth film, Ghost Protocol, when it came out. But I’m going to do what I suggested I would and post a fuller analysis to complete my review series. Maybe seeing it in the wake of all three predecessors will offer new insights.