Thursday, May 04, 2006

Review - Mission: Impossible III

"Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to enjoy Mission: Impossible III. Achieving this goal will require suspension of disbelief, the ability to ignore a derivative screenplay, and the acceptance of endless explosions and stunts as an adequate substitute for characterisation and plot. This review will self-destruct in five seconds…”

Hasn't the best part about Mission: Impossible - from the original TV series to the big screen versions - always occurred right at the start? When that dynamite fuse sparked into life, the classic Lalo Schifrin theme tune kicked in, and the IMF agents were informed of their tasks - those were always the highlights, with the subsequent missions almost an afterthought. Even the wording of the agents' brief was great; "your mission, should you choose to accept it” - how nice of them to offer a choice.

Since starring in the Brian De Palma film which launched this franchise in 1996, Tom Cruise has made the Mission: Impossible series his own. He reprised his role in 2001, with John Woo's Mission: Impossible II, but to utterly dismal effect. With his ludicrous 'lone wolf' heroics being lovingly admired by Woo's coma-inducing use of slow-motion, the film ended up looking like an bloated, disastrous egotrip; and it seemed we had heard the last from agent Ethan Hunt. But Cruise has been the driving force behind another Mission: Impossible sequel, sticking with the project as it lost various directors and cast members left, right and centre; and M:i:III (as it insists on labelling itself) is now with us.

Straight away, one can see a number of improvements M:i:III (what an ugly appellation that is) sports over its immediate predecessor. Cruise's hair is now under control, with the floppy locks of M:i:II being traded for an eminently more sensible cut which recalls his appearance in Mission: Impossible, and that's not the only resemblance we notice here. Brian De Palma's snappy thriller contained a weak, almost negligible plot which was bolstered by three or four expertly staged action sequences; a structure which surprisingly worked like a charm, and a recipe for success which M:i:III tries to repeat.

Director JJ Abrams, who has secured this gig on the basis of his hit TV shows Alias and Lost, opens M:i:III in attention-grabbing style. Our hero is shackled to a chair, bloody and seemingly beaten, and his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) is tied an adjacent chair with a gun being pointed at her head. The gun is being held by Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a very nasty weapons dealer who is giving Hunt the count of ten to tell him where a device called the 'Rabbit's Foot' is, or his new wife will get it. The decision to add one of Hunt's loved ones into the Mission: Impossible mix is an obvious attempt to humanise Ethan Hunt, to make him a more convincing proposition for the audience, and to steer him away from the ludicrously invincible character who high-kicked his way through M:i:II. This approach is partly successful, but it also necessitates a number of embarrassingly twee and clichéd scenes which detail the pair's happy life together.

After that jolting opening, M:i:III flashes back to show us just how Ethan Hunt got himself into such a predicament. Having retired from field duties to train young agents, Hunt is pulled back into action when an agent (Keri Russell) goes missing in action, an agent who happens to have been Hunt's star protégé. With his loyal team of Luther (Ving Rhames), Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen (Maggie Q) on board, Hunt launches a daring raid on Davian's reputed hideaway - but after his mission ends in tragedy he decides to go after Davian personally.

That's your plot right there. It's straightforward stuff which is complicated by disloyal agents, plenty of face-swapping and the fact that the aforementioned 'Rabbit's Foot' is little more than a macguffin which exists in order to facilitate plenty of explosive action. The story is a load of old nonsense, in other words, but nonsense can still be fun if it's done in the right way. Mission: Impossible III does eventually offer viewers a fair slice of blockbuster entertainment, but it's not the flat-out success it ought to be.

After the pre-credits flash-forward, M:i:III takes a while to click into gear. The aforementioned 'happy couple' scenes between Cruise and Monaghan are awkward and unconvincing, and the first big action sequence - the attempted rescue of the young agent - is a bit of a mess. The sequence is overly hectic and clumsily handled by Abrams, with his shaky camerawork and rapid cuts obscuring much of the action. Things improve slightly during the completely daft Vatican heist which is at least put together with a little more care and wit, and you can almost sense Abrams growing in confidence as the film progresses. Once we reach M:i:III's spectacular bridge sequence it feels like the film has finally found its stride - a fortunate turn of events, because I was starting to lose interest after the laboured opening half. The bridge scene is a real show-stopper which rouses the whole film from its slumber, and Abrams doesn't let the pace flag from this point onwards.

We are subsequently bombarded with scene after scene of Tom Cruise being thrown from pillar to post like the world's most expensive rag doll. The leading man, as you'd expect, is as professional as ever in the midst of all this; Ethan Hunt is a perfect role for him and he's in his element here, but he fortunately allows a few other characters to step into his limelight this time. Recent Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman is on terrific form as Davian, underplaying to excellent effect as the pleasingly brutal villain. Michelle Monaghan works hard to overcome her complete lack of chemistry with Cruise, and Ving Rhames again adds a nice level of humour to his sidekick role; but Maggie Q (gorgeous but ineffective) and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (terrible) are barely given any sort of characters to work with.

M:i:III takes off in a new direction for the climax, offering a sense of physicality and pain which is a surprising and welcome change of pace after the incessant action which leads us there. There really seems to be something at stake at the finale, which isn't usually the case, and the decision to strip down the film's climax to focus on the people at the centre of it is one of Abrams' smartest moves.

When all is said and done, Mission: Impossible III is a significant improvement over John Woo's risible effort, while lacking the necessary sense of focus and invention to match De Palma's original. What ultimately cripples the film is the overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Much of M:i:III feels familiar from
True Lies, various Bond films, the Bourne pictures and the previous instalments in this series itself; and while the big set-pieces work well, much of the film feels stale and predictable.

There doesn't seem to be much mileage left in the Mission: Impossible franchise now; Abrams has crafted a well-made, enjoyable but ultimately forgettable sequel which should bring down the curtain on this series. Mr Cruise may yet want one more crack at saving the world, but if IMF do offer Ethan Hunt another impossible mission, let's hope for all our sakes he chooses not to accept it.