Friday, January 13, 2012

Mission: Impossible III - How Bad Can Action-Adventure Films Be When J.J. Abrams Is Involved?

The Good: One or two moments of direction, writing and insinuation of character
The Bad: Predictable for fans of J.J. Abrams, Generally terrible acting, Surprisingly bad plot
The Basics: In a mindless action-adventure flick filled with shooting, running, jumping and the requisite number of explosions, Mission: Impossible III breaks J.J. Abrams successful streak.

I vaguely recall seeing the first Mission: Impossible movie with Tom Cruise, though it left such a little impression in my mind I could not tell anyone what happened in it. I know I did not see Mission: Impossible 2, but last weekend I found myself sitting down and watching Mission: Impossible III after thoroughly enjoying Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (reviewed here!). I had trepidation about the film, despite the fact that it was directed by J.J. Abrams, who has a lot of street credibility with my for his work creating Alias. Sadly, Abrams and his Alias alums co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci present nothing terribly new with Mission: Impossible III, making one think they had some decent ideas for spy dramas, but shot their wad on Alias.

When Ethan Hunt, superspy from the Impossible Missions Force is called back from his civilian life with his new fiance, Julia, when an agent he trained is captured by a pretty generic villainous billionaire named Owen Davian. When Hunt and his team lose Agent Farris, they go after Davian directly, only to lose him in a big, bad breakout. While Hunt goes rogue, fearing one of the higher-ups at IMF is in league with Davian, he works for find Julia and rescue her before she suffers the same fate as Farris.

Mission: Impossible III is so like an Alias episode that it even follows the narrative structure of the pilot episode of Abram's breakout hit. Just as Sydney Bristow began her tenure on television strapped to a chair as part of a narrative flash-forward, so too does this film begin with Ethan Hunt. As Davian interrogates Hunt brutally, Hunt begs for Julia's life. And it might have been compelling . . . had we not already seen it before.

The film then flashes back to the events leading Hunt to the chair and Davian's angry threats. As fans of J.J. Abrams's work will note, there is an obligatory cameo by actor Greg Grunberg and agent Farris is played by Keri Russell of Felicity fame, which Abrams also created. The result here is less a distinctive action-adventure movie or even a Mission: Impossible movie and more an homage to the work of J.J. Abrams. This is like "Greatest Hits of J.J. Abrams with a guest cast from Mission: Impossible."

The problem, outside this being entirely derivative, Mission: Impossible III has almost nothing going on in the character department. While Abrams belabored the balance between Sydney Bristow's home and work lives to establish interesting protagonists on Alias, he does little of that with Ethan Hunt here. Sure, we are spoon-fed the relationship between Ethan Hunt and Julia, but the relationship seems forced, with Hunt emoting more deeply for Agent Farris than for his potential wife.

Moreover, Owen Davian is a terribly generic villain. He is hunting for the rabbit's foot, a mysterious device with a biohazard warning that is not revealed to the audience. Davian has a pretty impressive arsenal at his disposal which is supposed to make the engaged viewer ask "If he has all this stuff, what must the rabbit's foot be that is so impressive and important to go through all of this for?" Sadly, this viewer - who struggled to stay engaged with this fairly mindless action adventure flick - just felt that he was going through a lot of bother for nothing that he couldn't have gotten a number of other, much easier, ways.

Mission: Impossible III is notable in one aspect and that is that it defies the current cultural trend that seems to want to convince the world that torture works. On 24 and in the camps of the U.S. government in neutral territory, torture is justified as a necessary evil in the supposed War on Terror. The assumption here - disproven ages ago - is that torture works. In a wonderful episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled "Chains of Command, Part II" (reviewed here!) the point is brilliantly brought home by Captain Picard that torture is historically known to be unreliable and more degrading to the interests of the torturer than the tortured. Similarly, Mission: Impossible III honorable illustrates the futility of torture when Davian is hung out a plane by Hunt without divulging anything. Similarly, the circumstance at the opening of the film does not yield what Davian hopes it would from Hunt. That's worth the bump up from one star in my book.

Sadly, it's one of the few concessions I feel I can make. Most of Mission: Impossible III is mindless running, shooting and blowing things up. One of my favorite - tongue is very much in cheek here - moments is when the special effects overcome all reason and the explosion of a missile behind Hunt throws him violently to the right. Physics, apparently, does not apply to the special effects department for this movie.

Neither does simple reason. The audience is expected to believe that a rescue attempt involving a drone plane firing missiles and a helicopter is pulled off in . . . wait for it . . . Washington D.C. Of all of the cities on Earth, Washington, D.C. was chosen as the location that the IMF forces are assaulted for Davian's rescue. There's suspension of disbelief and then there's just utter stupidity and this certainly falls into the latter category. Who would honestly believe that in these tumultuous years following the September 11, 2001 attacks that anything could shoot off missiles over D.C. and get away without being hunted down and/or blown out of the sky immediately?

I don't.

Equally unconvincing is the acting throughout Mission: Impossible III. Greg Grunberg's cameo to look somewhat bored is quite possibly the peak of the acting here, though Keri Russell makes the most of her time on screen by creating Farris as someone distinctly different from her trademark character from Felicity. She looks different, moves different and does her best to be the action hero she is supposed to be and she pulls it off as well as the script will allow her.

The acting talent of Ving Rhames is wasted in the bit role of Luther, though I understand he's part of the franchise so he was probably just happy to be back. Similarly, Laurence Fishburne's sole moment of acting greatness as Theodore Brassel, head of IMF, is entirely scripted when he makes the distinction between the Ellison and Wells's "Invisible Man."

This means that much of the movie hinges on the acting of leads Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Cruise. Hoffman illustrates none of the nervous mannerisms that made him a hit in Capote. The sad thing is, as a fan of Hoffman's work, it is hard to say Davian is a stretch for this great actor. In fact, watching the movie, I felt I had seen Hoffman acting exactly as he was in this film and I finally placed it. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is simply reprising his role and performance from the vastly superior Punch-Drunk Love, where he played a similar adversary (though with remarkably less money). It's not that Hoffman's performance is not good, it's just that the viewer has seen it before if they have followed his career at all.

Tom Cruise is equally bland, if not worse as Ethan Hunt. He runs, he jumps, sure, but he does not emote. He does nothing to make the viewer believe in his abilities or care about his predicament. His acting here is virtually interchangeable with his performance in, say, War Of The Worlds. Cruise does nothing stellar and, even worse, nothing interesting. As the central protagonist, it is death on toast that the viewer is not sold by his performance.

Mission: Impossible III is ideal for Mystery Science Theater style viewing, but not much else. It is certainly not inspired enough to warrant buying or watching with any amount of seriousness. And as a fan of the works of J.J. Abrams, it honestly pains me to write that.

For other works by J.J. Abrams, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Fringe - Season 2
Fringe - Season 1
Star Trek


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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