“Mission: Impossible III”

Is getting Tom Cruise to do more than grunt and squint through a scene the most impossible mission of all?

Topics: Tom Cruise, Movies,

"Mission: Impossible III"

Tom Cruise, reactive but impermeable, has spent his whole career learning how to make faces, mastering the semaphore of sensitivity. But listening to his fellow actors in a scene — or even just acknowledging their presence — is still beyond him. In the opening sequence of “Mission: Impossible III,” Cruise, as secret agent Ethan Hunt, has been drugged, beaten and handcuffed to a chair. Baddie Philip Seymour Hoffman has kidnapped Ethan’s wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), and he wants Ethan to watch as he tortures her. As Hoffman coos and flutters around the terrified woman, Cruise squints, blinks and bucks. The scene is all about suffering — his, not hers — and later, as he clutches the corpse of a fallen agent to his manly pectorals, the camera lingers on the held-back tears in his eyes. Cruise is so busy squeezing out his hard little nuggets of feeling that he’s incapable of letting anything in. Signal sent! Objective achieved! If there are other actors in the scene, Cruise hasn’t noticed them. No one’s going to sink his battleship.

If all you want from an action hero is muscle, Cruise is a suitable enough specimen — he has all the definition of a firm bundt cake. But in an action picture directed by J.J. Abrams, shouldn’t you want more? Abrams is the creator of two television shows, “Alias” and “Lost,” that have found loyal audiences partly because Abrams understands the difference between merely building suspense and using cross play between characters to sustain it. Like Joss Whedon before him — whose novelistic TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Firefly” continue to find new devotees, years after they’ve gone off the air — Abrams has a feel for the panoramic narrative possibilities of television. He allows us the luxury of getting to know the characters, even as he keeps the action taut. The emotional intensity of these shows is part of the fun: On “Alias,” Jennifer Garner’s CIA agent Sydney Bristow may love her enigmatic father, fellow agent Jack Bristow (Victor Garber), but the nature of their work — and their very nature as people — means that she can never really trust him. Mistrust bonds them closer than love does. Their relationship is a metaphor for the uneasy tangle that working (and living) in the modern world presents, the way “balancing” work and family often feels less like actual balancing than about trying to control a dense network of stressed-out threads that threaten to slip out of our grasp at any moment.

Of course, the challenge for Abrams — making his movie directorial debut here — is to do everything he does best on television, but to pack it into the space of a two-hour movie. That’s not a challenge that can be humanly met (not even Whedon, with his beautifully made movie spinoff of “Firefly,” “Serenity,” could quite pull it off). And yet “Mission: Impossible III” is serviceably entertaining. Abrams doesn’t just slap his ideas on the screen. The picture is coherent and well organized, and there are lots of Abrams touches tucked in the corners: Miniature bombs get planted in people’s brains (via the nasal cavity, natch). There’s a sexy computer geek, played by Simon Pegg, of “Shaun of the Dead.” And Abrams gives free rein to his fondness for McGuffins: Here, it’s a deadly serum-in-a-canister known only as “the Rabbit’s Foot” — we don’t know what it does, but we know it’s something pretty darn awful.

“Mission: Impossible III” works quite well as a glossy surface to skate on for two hours. And, like “Serenity,” it suggests that directors who have made their mark on TV can have a sense of how to make their stories work on the bigger screen. And yet, watching “Mission: Impossible III,” I kept wishing I was at home watching episodes of “Alias” instead. The movie is at least as good as an average episode of the show — and considering how carelessly made most action thrillers are today, that’s admirable. But Abrams hasn’t quite figured out how to make his visuals work on the big screen.

Abrams is big on torture — the sight of Sydney Bristow bound to a chair, with a menacing Asian dentist closing in on her mouth with a pair of pliers, may be one of the quintessential “Alias” images. But Abrams, freed from the constraint of all the things you can’t show on television, goes overboard here: We get more than one glimpse of a dead agent’s face registering the pain suffered in the last minute of life (one shot would have been just enough). And the action sequences, which include helicopter chases and a bridge getting half destroyed by whizzing missiles, are more frenetic and busy than they are suspenseful. They seem to be half-powered by desperation, as if Abrams is straining to make everything bigger and more exciting for the movie screen, when his real gift is that of focusing on the details that can make a sprawling narrative feel concise and compact.

And one of the great pleasures of “Alias” is nowhere to be found in “Mission: Impossible III.” In “Alias,” much of the real action takes place not in the field, but back at headquarters. Abrams has a knack for balancing the exotic with the mundane, particularly when it comes to office politics. On “Alias,” he deals not just with international espionage but with the everyday stuff of the workplace: Whose desk do you swing by first, after you’ve just gotten back from a business (or assassination) trip? Who has a crush on whom? And what’s up with our weird boss?

There are scenes in which Abrams tries to re-create that workplace bonhomie in “Mission: Impossible III,” but they feel rote and lifeless. And they point to the bigger problem with “Mission: Impossible III”: When Cruise is your star, how can you even come close to capturing any of the subtle quirkiness of everyday life? Abrams (who wrote the script with two “Alias” writers, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) has tried to give Ethan Hunt some human dimension (which Brian De Palma succeeded in doing, almost against all odds, in the first “Mission: Impossible”; in “M:I-2,” John Woo barely even made the effort to try).

The story opens with Ethan and Julia (whom Monaghan plays with a great deal of charm and spirit, even though the role demands little of her) celebrating their engagement. Ethan is going to be a family man for a change — he’s going to have a personal life in which he’s committed to one woman. But one of his superiors, played by the dry-as-snakeskin Billy Crudup, lures him back with an assignment. (The details are cleverly conveyed to him via a disposable camera that, true to the spirit of the TV show that spawned this movie franchise, self-destructs in a puff of smoke after it’s served its purpose.) Ethan, with the help of fellow agents played by Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q (the latter of whom seems to be around just as a hanger for the same types of sexy evening gowns that willowy Sydney Bristow wears), needs to rescue another agent, who’s been hot on the trail of pillowy bad guy Owen Davian (Hoffman, who’s believably sinister possibly because his features look so mild-mannered and kind). Davian is a black-market dealer who puts dangerous weapons into the hands of evildoers. And he knows that the best way to hurt a guy like Ethan is to go after the person he loves most.

“Mission: Impossible III” is clearly designed to be an action thriller with emotional underpinnings. But you can’t get blood from a stone, no matter how hard you squeeze. And so Cruise, a huge box-office star, is the single bright, blinking emblem of the failure of “Mission: Impossible III.” There are places where the movie feels molded and manipulated to up Cruise’s sagging approval ratings with the public: Julia’s girlfriends chatter about what a catch Ethan is; when he and Julia tie the knot in a hasty ceremony, he coyly pulls out the last-minute wedding rings he’s procured — they’re plastic, and they have little pandas on them.

Cruise is working hard to play the kind of guy every woman wants, and the kind of guy every guy wants to be: He’s manly enough to scale skyscrapers and blast thugs, but he’s also a cuddly cutie-pie who knows that panda bears are the secret to getting a gal in the sack every time. And yet he’s so focused, he’s disengaged. In “Mission: Impossible III,” the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, while Cruise groans and grunts through his acting regimen. Nothing is ever at stake with Cruise; he can’t get outside of himself enough to make us believe that anything else matters. As Ethan Hunt, he’s so busy trying to rock our world that he forgets he’s supposed to be saving it.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>