Mission: Impossible 3

5 out of 5

Directed by: J. J. Abrams

Everything about M:I 3 is a direct course correction to the teeth grit, one-liner swagger of M:I 2, roping back in the key tonal elements from the first film – IMF agent Ethan Hunt as a panicked rabbit on the run instead of a motorcycle stunting badass James Bond; impossible seeming stakes instead of things that just seemed designed to look cool; a plot that keeps rotating while its heroes keep running – and updated it to something that felt bright and original amidst the fomenting blockbuster era of Transformers and Marvel spectacles.  While 3 seems to get overlooked when praising the anted-up presentations of later entries, it’s undeniable that that direction started here.  J. J. Abrams (and co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) figured out that the franchise needed to constantly be on guard; to always exist in its heightened state to justify whatever insanity Tom Cruise wanted to act his way through, and then dressed it up with a core crew that could build in the same familiarity as, say, a TV show could, and a steady stream of memorable villains, with 3’s Phillip Seymour Hoffman black market deal, Owen Davian, striking a goddamn frightening pose right from the flick’s start.

Cold open: not on the slick operations that have opened previous entries, but on Hunt tied to a chair while someone across from him is threatened at gunpoint by Davian.  Hunt struggles; he is not in control, and Cruise brings it all to the screen: a veritable meltdown of IMF agent coolness as the scene builds up and up to a gunshot that, given the terse tone of the scene, might not be a fakeout.  We won’t know until we get back to that point, flashing back to Hunt, retired from fieldwork, playing nice with his unawares fiance, Julia (Michelle Monaghan – ah, goodness, it was her being threatened), when he’s contacted by a handler, Musgrave (Billy Crudup) to see if he wants in on a mission to rescue an agent he’d trained.

He does.  The op – Luther Strickell (Ving Rhames) is there, along with some new faces – does not go well, and from there on out of our two hour runtime, things just continue to not go well for Hunt, as he gets deeper into a tangled mess of some bought and sold item of danger, once again echoing the edge of film one by having the tables completely turn so that IMF hunts Ethan as well.  The movie is essentially nonstop, but with Abrams keen sense of pacing, trained over his TV years, giving us key breathers for planning and conversations that somehow keeps the character work churning.  Even side characters – Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg – feel relevant and ‘real’ within the context of our tale, and Abrams doesn’t luxuriate in any given scene, which keeps us on edge, not knowing if we’ve reached the climax of a moment with this explosion or that daring escape or what can possibly be goddamned next??  …Up until nearly the last few minutes of the flick.

Listening to the commentary with Cruise and Abrams solidifies the competency of the movie even more: these guys are in lock-step, and excited about every moment of their movie.  As well they should be.  Rescuing the series from plans of different directors / different styles, which likely would have resulted in further Woo-style missteps, M:I 3 gave us a workable template for others to paint within, while still remaining as bold and exciting a work on its own as the original flick.  Bonus: it also gave us Michael Giacchino‘s score, which kicks the pants off of Hans Zimmer’s and Danny Elfman’s rather ‘safe’ prior attempts, updating the themes to something that matches the modern stylings of the movie.