Mission: Impossible III
When we first met Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in 1996's Mission: Impossible, he was a gifted Impossible Mission Force (IMF) agent who held his own in the field, but won the day with smarts, wits and problem-solving. In the disappointing Mission: Impossible II (2000), Hunt was an almost superhuman, James Bond-like action hero who couldn't be stopped. And now, in the best film of the franchise, Hunt is both the brilliant agent and the capable soldier while finally gaining an important missing asset: a life.
When J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost) took the director's chair for this sequel—becoming the third director in as many films—he said his goal was to flesh out Ethan's character. As a co-writer for this film, Abrams wanted to show Ethan not just as an agent in the field, but as a man. And like Abrams has done with Lost and early Alias seasons, providing characters' real lives to the events around them adds spark, heart and intensity. It raises the stakes. Now, the risk isn't just the release of foreign operatives. Or the spreading of a virus. What is at risk is a person. Ethan has a home, a steady love and even a dog. He has passions, regrets, and—most importantly—he has things to lose.
When an action script successfully gets you to care about the stakes, it doesn't really matter what the threat is. It doesn't really matter what the bad guy wants. M:I3 knows this. And it works. The plot is bare bones: Bad guy wants something. Good guy doesn't want him to have it. What that something is and why it is desired is irrelevant. The bad guy is just there to set the stage. Instead, the human drama takes center stage. There's very little plot or commentary to the film other than simple survival and getting the job done. The movie makes some risky—but good—plot choices at the end. Abrams quickly wraps up story threads and then focuses on what matters: Ethan's life.
The newly engaged Ethan has now left field work to train new agents. He's celebrating his engagement to Julia (Michelle Monaghan) with friends and relatives when the Impossible Missions Force asks him for help. There's an emergency. A young agent (Keri Russell) whom Ethan trained has been kidnapped while tailing a major weapons provider, Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). The rescue puts Ethan and his IMF team into a dangerous battle with Davian over the mysterious Rabbit's Foot. The cat-and-mouse game casts questions on where loyalties lie, puts Julia in danger, and spans the globe from Virginia to Vatican City to China.
Saying anything more about the plot spoils the fun. It may be a simple story, but there are twists, turns and surprises. It's not complicated. It's not entirely original. But it is a well-structured and intense ride. And the bottom line is how much fun it is. Abrams was the right man for the job because he understands what the franchise is about (after all, his Alias has many times felt like Mission: Impossible): fun, espionage, double-crosses, red herrings, and thrills. The movie doesn't take itself seriously, and even seems to wink at the audience a few times. There are big laughs, rockin' action set pieces, and smart uses of the spy genre and the franchise's history. For instance, while the other two movies used plenty of Mission: Impossible masks and costumes, this chapter pulls a Batman Begins by showing us the details of how the technology is used. The team builds a mask in the field and we see the agent's transformation—in both how he looks and sounds.