Monday, May 08, 2006

Film Review - Mission: Impossible III

Nearly one year ago, Tom Cruise caused a media firestorm with his very public relationship with his then-girlfriend Katie Holmes (the two have since had a baby and plan to marry soon) and his ardent defense of the Church of Scientology. The neurotic actor and his affiliation with the controversial religious movement have once again grabbed media attention. This whole situation began with an episode of the critically, as well as publicly, acclaimed animated television series South Park entitled ‘Trapped in the Closet’. In the episode series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone openly mock scientologists Tom Cruise and John Travolta as well as Scientology in general. Isaac Hayes who voices the character of Chef on the Comedy Central program reportedly left the show claiming ‘religious intolerance’. Although in his press statement Hayes does not mention Scientology, the ‘religion’ he belongs to, Matt Stone responded by saying, “This is 100 percent having to do with his faith of Scientology... He has no problem — and he's cashed plenty of checks — with our show making fun of Christians...He wants a different standard for religions other than his own, and, to me, that is where intolerance and bigotry begin”. Comedy Central, a subsidiary of Viacom which also owns Paramount Pictures, then pulled a repeat episode of ‘Trapped in the Closet’ on March 22nd, 2006, after Tom Cruise supposedly threatened not to promote his new film, Mission: Impossible III, if the episode aired again. Thus far the backlash has been minimal with a small group of South Park fans threatening to boycott the potential summer blockbuster. However, unlike last year when Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of War of the Worlds seemed to have benefited in its opening weekend from the whole Cruise-Scientology controversy, audiences may have just had their fill of Tom Cruise and a debut-director at the helm the draw for the film may be significantly less then expected.

The ingenious story behind Mission: Impossible III is the product of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the creative writing duo behind last year’s intelligent yet vastly underappreciated Michael Bay drama, The Island, and the ABC television series Alias created by J.J. Abrams who also contributed to the screenplay. Like the acclaimed Jennifer Garner series, the film opens in the middle of the story and ends with a cliffhanger before the title sequence appears. From there it transitions back to the beginning before returning to where it started off and then picking up from the moment of the cliffhanger. The three writers make expedient use of another plot element borrowed from Alias called the MacGuffin, a plot device that ‘motivates the characters and advances the story, but has little other relevance to the story itself’. Its sole purpose is to elevate the action of the first act and set the gears in motion for the rest of the picture. It declines in significance as the film winds down until it is practically meaningless. For Mission: Impossible III the ‘Rabbit’s foot’ serves as its MacGuffin. We are never told what the ‘Rabbit’s foot’ is exactly, only that Davian and his clients are willing to pay large sums of money for it and, when used in conjunction with the ‘Anti-God’, it conjures up images of unimaginable destruction and is therefore of critical significance to the audience. Once Julia is found alive and safe and Davian is killed, what the ‘Rabbit’s foot’ specifically is no longer matters to the audience. Fishburne’s character cleverly taunts Hunt (and the audience) by saying he would be willing to reveal the identity of the ‘Rabbit’s foot’ if Hunt comes out of retirement.

Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise. He is who he is. Either you accept him as Ethan Hunt or you reject on the basis that he is the psychotic couch-jumping cultist the public has come to know him as today. Unless you had difficulty distinguishing Tom Cruise the actor from Tom Cruise the real world scientologist during Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of War of the Worlds, you should have no problems with him in Mission: Impossible III.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, fresh off an Academy Award-winning performance as author Truman Capote, though we can all agree he deserved an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his priceless performance in the action-thriller, Twister, is enjoyably sinister as Owen Davian, the villain of the picture. What does Davian do exactly? He’s a middle man for terrorists and totalitarian dictatorships seeking weapons of mass destruction. True, the description is vague but to borrow a page from Alfred Hitchcock imagine him simply as an ‘exporter/importer’ of secrets. As Davian himself says, “What I'm selling and who I'm selling it to should be the least of your worries... Ethan”.

Laurence Fishburne does not have an all-encompassing role as we might expect from the actor in this film but what he does contribute in the form of dry wit and artifice is memorable enough. From the very beginning the audience senses something not quite right with his character John Brassel. Maybe it is his cynical retort toward Musgrave who interrupts him, “Please don't interrupt me when I'm asking rhetorical questions” or the ‘head up his ass’ attitude he resonates on Hunt and his fellow IMF members. What either it is it is enough to lead us to suspect foul play. Rather then national pride we, the audience, feel anger toward him as he says to Hunt after he is captured, “You can look at me with those judgmental eyes all you want - I would bleed on the American flag to keep those stripes red”.

Don’t get too excited about Keri Russell’s appearance in this film though. This is not to say that she does a bad job, far from it, but you don’t want to give your hopes up for what is essentially a walk-on cameo. For those who don’t remember, Russell was the star of the hit drama series Felicity on the WB television network which was created (and occasionally directed and written) by J.J. Abrams. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time but her character’s relationship with Ethan Hunt is a motivating factor in the actions that follow. At first, like Luther, we, the audience, suspect Hunt and Ferris shared a romantic relationship but Abrams in a fit of brilliance positions a flashback sequence which returns our focus on the sexual chemistry between Ethan Hunt and Julia. While their relationship certainly could have crossed over into something sexual, it doesn’t and was kept strictly professional. Perhaps this is reading a little too much into but rather then have the audience speculate about where Ethan’s heart lies, Abrams ends the debate abruptly without doing damage to the story’s pace.

Another clever little cameo is made by Greg Grunberg early on in the film. Grunberg’s quick appearance in Mission: Impossible III is a little inside joke for J.J. Abrams’s fans, so unless you’ve paid attention to his work you won’t necessarily get it. For those who don’t know, Grunberg has made an appearance in all three television series Abrams has created – Felicity, Alias, and a small part in the pilot episode for Lost.

In fact if you were to examine the list of supporting and background characters of Mission: Impossible III, you would find a lot them appeared either in Felicity, Alias, Lost, or some combination of the three. For example, Jeff Chase who plays Davian’s bodyguard made several appearances in bit parts, usually as some big brute, in Alias. Robert Alonzo was a utility stunt performer in Alias, Tony Guma appeared in both Felicity and Alias in one episode of each respectively, and Jonathan Dixon who plays a guy working at the 7-11 was a bit character on both Alias and Lost.

True, British actor Simon Pegg, best remembered by American audiences for his 2004 zombie-parody Shaun of the Dead, is only a bit player in this film but once again Abrams uses a seemingly insignificant character to provide a crucial plot motivator. Benji, an analyst inside the office of Impossible Mission Force, goes through this whole spiel with Ethan and Luther about how he had this college professor who warned of a man-made compound referred to as ‘The Anti-God’ which would devastate all life on Earth. Think ‘end of the world’ type scenario. He makes this statement shortly after introducing the ‘MacGuffin’ of the picture, the ‘Rabbit’s Foot’, the identity of which is forever unknown to us, the audience.

And Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Match Point, Alexander, Elvis), Michelle Monaghan (The Bourne Supremacy, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), Ving Rhames (Kojak, Dawn of the Dead, Lilo & Stitch), and the ravishing model-turned-actress Maggie Q round out the supporting cast with nothing of notable exception.

Overall, Mission: Impossible III delivers what it promises, a non-stop wall-to-wall action-packed adventure ride, and then some to kick off this year’s summer season off right. There is no need whatsoever to delve into either the first two films in the franchise (Abrams appropriately designs the script for easy viewing for first timers) or the Alias television series, although viewing the latter will help you enjoy the inside jokes, cameos, and story elements borrowed from the television drama a bit more. Both Mission: Impossible and Alias fans will leave the theatre happy to be sure. In addition to being a gripping spy-thriller, Abrams throws in enough dashes of romance, humor, and mystery to keep everyone happy. There are at least three major action sequences of particular note. The first is a rescue mission in Germany. Simply put, Kerri Russell can kick some serious butt and could even give Jennifer Garner a run for her money. Second, an infiltration of the Vatican to kidnap Owen Davian, while it may perturb die-hard Catholics (then again, why would they being watching a movie starring a ‘devote’ Scientologist) is well done. And the third is a battle on a bridge and raises the intensity level of the picture up a few notches to be sure. And, sure, while a lot of these scenes were shot in these exotic locations just because they could be shot there, what else do you expect from an action thriller? It’s a bit more intelligent then the usually mindless action fare but coming from director J.J. Abrams who created Alias and Lost, you shouldn’t expect anything less. Critics like Roger Ebert need to lighten up every once in awhile and accept genre films like Spider-Man and Mission: Impossible III for what they are, pure entertainment.

My Rating: **** ½ out of 5 (Grade: A-)