The Mission: Impossible movies star Tom Cruise – and that’s a good thing. Say what you will about him personally, the guy’s one focused and hard-working action star. The plots of these movies don’t make much sense, and that’s a bad thing – but not fatal. It all comes down to the director. For the first movie, Cruise fought hard to get Brian DePalma, whose career was in the dumps. DePalma was on fire, creating one of the most stylish and elegantly-shot action movies ever made. The movie was all buildup to three astonishing set pieces, classics of their type. Mission: Impossible II , directed by John Woo, alternated between lugubrious dialogue and overheated Hong Kong-style action, and is best forgotten.
Now consider the new film, Mission: Impossible III , directed by J.J. Abrams, creator of the television series Alias and Lost . Abrams shoots dialog in telephoto; faces, always in close-up, are in focus, but the background is soft – as if the actors are all that matters. This is a reflex from TV, where the sets are boring and you don’t want to show them. Even though he had the money to hire somebody better, whether out of loyalty or familiarity, Abrams brought along his TV production designer, Scott Chambliss. The film is well-produced, but its design is inexcusably awful.
To summarize briefly the nonsensical plot: Tom Cruise, as super spy Ethan Hunt, can not only perform impossible stunts, he can even work out the math to tell you just how impossible they are. He’s about to get married, but work keeps getting in the way. Ethan’s enemy is the dastardly Owen Davian, an arms dealer, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, frowning and dry. Davian wants to get his hands on a MacGuffin called the Rabbit’s Foot, which could end life on Earth as we know it. We’re not sure how it does this, but what matters is that it’s small, so you can run around with it; it’s glass, which can break; and it’s a cylinder, so it can roll. Write your own action scene.
Though J.J. Abrams probably belongs on the small screen, Cruise and his producing partner, Paula Wagner, hired Vic Armstrong to direct the action scenes. They are awesome. Armstrong was the stunt coordinator and second unit director on about 100 action films, including the James Bond movies. If it seems like Mission: Impossible III ‘s dialogue and action were directed by different people, it’s because they almost certainly were.
Billy Wilder said that a great movie can be defined as follows: three great scenes, no bad scenes. The first Mission: Impossible fulfilled both requirements, and was a great movie. Mission: Impossible III has the first criterion down cold. Like the first film, there are three ingenious action scenes: one with helicopters and windmills; one with two tall buildings; and one, a scene on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, that is a direct lift from James Cameron’s True Lies – but True Lies was a remake anyway, so all’s fair. As for the second criterion, no bad scenes, well…we need to lower our expectations a few dozen notches. But with those lowered expectations, the movie works great as a kickoff to the summer movie season. It may be television, but at least it’s really good television.
Mission: Impossible III is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.