That old sparkling fuse is burning again. Ever since 1966, the Impossible Mission Force has pulled covert long and short cons on dastardly international criminals: first in seven seasons on CBS, then for two more seasons in a late '80s ABC revamp, and—as of 1996—in a big budget film franchise starring Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt. On the big screen, the cons have gotten smaller and the explosives much, much larger, but the burning fuse remains, a constant symbol of the "Espionage Edition" of Beat the Clock.
In 1996, while indulging the graphic flash characteristic of the modern "summer movie," Brian De Palma gleefully deconstructed the beloved series for a world changed by the fall of Communism. John Woo's 2000 sequel chased its clanking action machinery with mythic symbolism of good versus evil and the sly, mutual seduction common (at least in movies) between lithe professional transgressors. The third in the series—helmed and co-written by J.J. Abrams—likewise generates, and relies upon, the pace and energy of a roller-coaster, but Mission: Impossible III stops somewhere short of intentional (DePalma) and unintentional (Woo) self-parody.
Abrams made his name on the small screen, by co-creating college soap Felicity and, more recently, the runaway hit Lost. More germane is the only show for which Abrams receives sole creator credit: Alias, a show about family ties within the world of espionage. One of the big jokes in Mission: Impossible III is an inappropriate use of Sly and the Family Stone's "We Are Family"—the choice is tongue-in-cheek, but not random. The hardest part of being a spy, Abrams speculates, is the love of tight-knit colleagues and immediate family, should an agent dare to start one.
From its opening frames, Mission: Impossible III begins (and never ends) putting Ethan Hunt's loved ones in jeopardy: his serious romantic partner (Michelle Monaghan), the first trainee he ever recommended for active field duty (Keri "Felicity" Russell), and the team with which he shares a happy rapport: franchise stalwart Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and newcomers Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen (Maggie Q). It's a given that Hunt will face unspeakable physical dangers, but this time, they're personal.
The less said, the better about the plot's particulars, but Philip Seymour Hoffman's ruthless black-marketeer Owen Davian drives the story. The IMF wants to put a stop to his dealings in all manner of weapons, but Davian knows the best defense is an offense. Though he has less apparent motivation than Iago, Davian's cold, formidable menace is another testament to Hoffman's technical skill; like Davian, Hoffman is a man who both means business and takes it personally.
Abrams tries hard to do due diligence to the franchise as seen by Cruise, as well as the '60s series. With a $150 million dollar budget, Abrams has the opportunity—nay, the obligation—to give Cruise enough eye-popping locales (Berlin, Vatican City, Shanghai, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge), high-tech gadgetry, and badass action thrills to give James Bond a run for his money. Like De Palma's film, Abrams' take at least gives the team opportunities to run elaborate short cons—unlike the more time-consuming ops of the series' IMF—and the writers maintain the traditions of the self-destructing mission briefing and the utterly transformative masks.
All of these elements and characters (did I mention Laurence Fishburne, Billy Crudup, and Simon Pegg as IMF desk jockeys?) threaten to crowd out drama. And for the most part, they succeed. For all the lip service paid by Abrams to characterization, the truth is that Mission: Impossible III is a magic trick accomplished with smoke and pure speed. Pace is essential to effect—the film's first super-charged action sequence includes a literal shot of adrenaline.
Several action scenes take the form of a chase or a sprint, whether through the sky or vehicular or pedestrian traffic; others repeat the gravity-defying spectacles of the previous films, dropping or swinging Cruise from great heights. Tragic turns lend Hunt strong motivation and overwhelming emotion, but since the chaotic, can't-catch-a-breath action bursts are nearly unrelenting, Abrams can only provide a reasonable facsimile of drama. MI: III is a thrill ride, and a gripping one: plausibility-straining, predictable at times, but pulse-pounding all the same.
Awe-inspiring production value contributes to the effect, from Daniel Mindel's location photography to the impeccable action editing of Maryann Brandon & Mary Jo Markey. Abrams' go-to composer Michael Giacchino adapts Lalo Schifrin's main title theme (natch), but also an incidental cut TV fans will dig ("The Plot"). On the other hand, run screaming from the theatre before the credit-roll introduction of Kanye West's "Impossible."
The script, polished by Abrams from the work of Alias scribes Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci, treats the team's non-mission-related talk as "watercooler" chat, an analog to Abrams' reminder that spies (like us) have home lives and, perhaps, significant others. Luther warns Ethan against the latter. "A normal relationship isn't viable for people like us," people who make more enemies every time they go to work.
Abrams and company also know to steal the best from Hitchcock, drawing a normal person into abnormal circumstances (she rises to the occasion), basing the plot on a never-detailed MacGuffin (a biohazard dubbed "The Rabbit's Foot"), and giving one of the bad guys a compact speech that puts him simply but firmly into political context. If Abrams creeps into laughable territory with these fillips of skillful shorthand, and audacious action conceits like nose-injected brain explosives, they're all in the good fun of competing in a market where the cliffhanger ante has been raised through the roof.
[For Groucho's interview with J.J. Abrams, click here.]