Mission: Impossible III – The Summer Blockbuster Hollywood Got Right
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Was the third time the charm for the Cruise franchise...?
There are few things more invigorating than an inventive, solidly constructed, straightforward action film. These films need not reinvent the wheel, much less devise a new form of travel. They require only proper motivation, interesting characters, thrilling set pieces, and a satisfying plot; yet it is so rare that an action film comes along with a basic conceit and satisfying results.
J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III occupies that middle ground between high-minded action fare focused on political intrigue (the Bourne trilogy) or character drama (Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight) and the completely brainless, awful films that have unfortunately come to define “summer blockbuster” (more recently, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Losers, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra). Mission: Impossible III is not a film with a lot of intellectual heft, but its structure and execution is so precise, so fine, and its action sequences so thrilling, it’s clear a lot of thought went into it.
The plot is so basic it’s almost silly – Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has retired from active spy duty (or whatever job description corresponds to what Ethan Hunt does), but is brought back in one last time to take down Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a black market dealer who killed Ethan’s protégé, and who is about to take possession of a big-deal object known as The Rabbit’s Foot.
Let’s start with The Rabbit’s Foot. The conception of the term is up for grabs, but it was Alfred Hitchcock who introduced the world to the concept of the MacGuffin, an object that sets the story in motion but which ultimately has no actual resonance for the audience. Examples include the titular object of The Maltese Falcon, the “All Spark” (that dumb cube thing) in Transformers, the Unobtanium in Avatar, or almost anything the second half of an Indiana Jones title refers to.
Despite its proliferation across film history, which extend to better films to be sure, I am particularly fond of The Rabbit’s Foot – it’s an odd name to pick, a completely generic-looking device, and we’re ultimately never told what it is. It makes me giggle just thinking that the whole movie’s “about” the quest to control this thing. It feels like a slyly subversive move, a statement I’m tempted to retract because screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci have time and time again proven to be a truly uninspired creative force, but then, there’s a lot about this movie I wouldn’t expect if I knew everything they would go on to do.
"Mission: Impossible III is not a film with a lot of intellectual heft, but its structure and execution is so precise, so fine, and its action sequences so thrilling, it’s clear a lot of thought went into it"
The plotting of the film, a frequent weak spot for Kurtzman and Orci, is nearly ironclad. Ethan’s goals, ever-shifting though they may be, are typically singular in nature – rescue Lindsey, capture Owen, find Julia – but often require accomplishing a series of smaller goals to attain that – break into the Vatican, escape custody, find The Rabbit’s Foot – and the connections between these goals and the actions taken to accomplish them are totally organic to the characters and the story. Of all the things film has lifted from video games, this sort of stacking of the goals is a particularly wise move to apply to an action-thriller. We as an audience are never given solid ground, but the protagonist is constantly involved with specific obstacles that he will succeed in overcoming, mostly because Abrams, Kurtzman, and Orci are smart enough to build more obstacles.
The reversals come fast and hard – Owen escapes, Julia is missing, and Ethan is taken into custody in a very active ten-minute span at the film’s midpoint. At the exact moment when most action films are struggling to maintain audience interest in the plot set up at the beginning, Mission: Impossible III becomes completely another movie that is still an organic continuation of the first.
"Unlike most blockbuster franchises, Mission: Impossible III works as a standalone film"
Unlike most action films, in which a character frequently declared “the best of the best” is forced to fail again and again in order to keep the movie above the 60-minute mark, Ethan and his team succeed completely in their mission to capture Davian. There are slight complications along the way, but by and large the thrill is in seeing an operation work to perfection, and when taken in conjunction with the team’s very-near success in rescuing Lindsey, we come to completely understand how Ethan’s earned his reputation without having to rely on the previous films in the franchise (unlike most blockbuster franchises, Mission: Impossible III works as a standalone film). The action sequences actually grow organically from the plot and the characters, stemming from mission objectives rather than a simple desire to pummel – story is frequently told through action, rather than action breaking up story.
Action is character – it’s a term used for the stage that could never be more applicable than in Mission: Impossible III. The differences between Ethan and Davian are obvious and immediate. Ethan is constantly focused, rushing towards his goal and unfazed by distractions (ideally suited traits for a character played by Tom Cruise, whose thousand-yard-stare is one of cinema’s best). It can be as simple as when he jumps on top of a crashed truck to fire at the helicopter Davian escaping in, or as elaborate as his unflinching desire to retrieve The Rabbit’s Foot and trade it for Julia. We understand immediately that he’s put everything on himself, and the attitude of “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” seems to drive his every move.
Owen, on the other hand, has forces in place that never require active involvement. In his and Ethan’s final confrontation, he’s already set off the charge in Ethan’s head before confronting him, leaving him free to slowly kill him. Everything he does feels like an afterthought – even a bold line, “and I told you I was going to kill you in front of her? Well, I’m going to kill her in front of you” is said so casually that we believe this is another day at the office for Davian. (Hoffman’s performance is just awesome here, subverting the screen-chewing we expect with these villains).
"It’s the natural evolution of the sort of plotting Hitchcock was known for, applied to the blockbuster age"
So when these two come into direct, verbal conflict aboard the plane, the collision isn’t directly confrontational, but threatening nonetheless – Ethan is interrogating Owen, determined to find out more about The Rabbit’s Foot, but Owen whiles away the time tossing threats Ethan’s way; his capture seems more an inconvenience (his attitude here is no different than when wine is spilled on his tuxedo), but he recognizes he should probably punish Ethan for it.
The film is simply a joy to watch – breathless, tense, and engaging, and occasionally subversive (the whole Shanghai sequence is completely unexpected), it’s the natural evolution of the sort of plotting Hitchcock was known for, applied to the blockbuster age.
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