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Mission Impossible 3 (2006)

by on 2010/03/22

As I write this review, about one week has passed since the death of Peter Graves.  When I heard the news, I felt more affected than I could have predicted.  Certainly, I realized he was advancing in years but, to me and doubtless others, he would forever remain the age of the characters he portrayed in movies and on TV.

For those wondering what his passing has to do with my review, you could say he was the forerunner of Tom Cruise’s character in both versions of the Mission Impossible television show.  Their similarities pretty much begin and end with “recruiting and leading the other agents”.  Graves played Jim Phelps as meticulous, collaborative, and careful, where Cruise plays his own character, Ethan Hunt, as a loose cannon.

As do their Star Trek analogues — Captains Picard and Kirk respectively — both have merit.  But where I see great commonality between the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, I have considerably more trouble in mapping Graves’ series to Cruise’s.  That difficulty should not imply a dislike of the movies, but I do find them somewhat problematic, perhaps because they lack consistency.  The Mission Impossible movies are more defined by their directors than their progenitors.  (In fact, a more faithful inheritor of the television mantle might be the TNT show, Leverage.)

To switch gears let me say that, while it was unfortunate Peter Graves could not participate in the feature films, his refusal (for he was asked) was unsurprising and, in truth, probably his wisest course of action.  There is, after all, much difference between Mission then and now, and it’s best to take each property on its own merits, shared title aside.

Which brings us to M:i:III, a movie with a promotional label so smitten with marketese that it practically requires its own intelligence agency to explain.  Tom Cruise stars as Ethan Hunt and, no matter what the propaganda would have you believe, this is his vehicle, not his team’s.  No longer a field agent, Ethan has settled down with his girlfriend, posing as a traffic analyst while secretly teaching IMF (Impossible Mission Force) prospects.  The kidnapping of a former student draws him into a series of back-and-forth plot changes more driven by revenge than any MacGuffin.

In many ways, I feel this movie is the sequel that fans of True Lies have been clamoring many years for.  It lacks only that movie’s sense of humour, despite the welcome return of Ving Rhames (now apparently the team’s relationship consultant) and the introduction of Simon Pegg (acting as IMF doomsayer).  Unfortunately, M:i:III lacks much warmth.  In addition to Ethan’s rogue tendencies, we get a phalanx of new and unfamiliar characters to keep us estranged.  Just as the James Bond movies have the unfortunate habit of continually recasting satellites like Felix Leiter and Bill Tanner, here we meet yet another cast.  Laurence Fishburne replaces previous bosses Henry Czerny and Anthony Hopkins, Billy Crudup acts as Ethan’s new confidante, and team-member places are held by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q.  I don’t necessarily dislike any of these characters or their casting but, by now, precedent offers little reason to get too attached to them.

Still, however critical I may seem, I very much enjoyed this movie.  Of the three to date, it feels like the one that most wants to return to its roots, which is to say it may be the one least unlike the TV series.  It gets a lot of the broad strokes right, and its many small touches also add considerable interest.  Without spilling too many secrets, we get:

  • The always-fascinating creation and application of a latex mask;
  • Impressive stunts and effects, as when Ethan is thrown aside by an explosion;
  • The commonly-abused device of lip-reading, finally used in an uncommon way;
  • Even an occasional “character” moment, as when agents Zhen and Declan share a stakeout in Shanghai.

Best of all, we are treated to Philip Seymour Hoffman.  He portrays a foe truly worthy of IMF attention, one whose cool composure keeps him formidable to the end.  Most action movies acclimate their audiences to a cardboard villain, but Hoffman’s performance elevates Owen Davien from peevish thug to force of will incarnate.  If it’s true that a story, or its hero, is only as strong as its antagonist, then this third Mission is easily the best yet.

There is something to be said for not comparing the current franchise to the original; the comparison would hardly be fair.  Never did Phelps have to contend with a monster like Davien.  Back in The Day, the villains were corrupt, but they had the decorum to stay on course while the IMF planned its work, and worked its plan.  Ethan Hunt may be something of a scoundrel himself, but maybe that’s just appropriate in a criminal world that has lost its respect for the intelligence, elocution, and sheer class of Peter Graves’ generation.

* * * *

Rated PG for adult situations, profanity, and violence

126 minutes

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