With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.
He may be the king of Hollywood now, but when J.J. Abrams was announced as the director of Mission: Impossible III, there was a lot of skepticism. He'd never directed a movie before and was mainly known as a TV writer-producer who'd only directed a handful of episodes of the shows he worked on (Alias, Lost, Felicity). But Mission: Impossible III turned out to be Abrams' big Hollywood breakthrough, the movie that helped him land gigs on some of the biggest franchises around (Star Trek, Star Wars) and made his name into its own brand. He's still credited as a producer on the subsequent Mission: Impossible films that he hasn't directed.
Abrams may not be a visual stylist along the lines of Brian De Palma or John Woo (his love of lens flares, which is only slightly evident here, aside), but he does know how to put together a big-budget action movie, and he manages to bring some level of emotion and character development to Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt, something that the previous movies weren't all that concerned with. Those efforts don't always work out, but at least they point to some kind of life beyond missions for Ethan and the supporting characters. Disappointingly, Thandie Newton doesn't return as master thief Nyah, who was a promising love interest for Ethan in the second movie. Instead, we get Michelle Monaghan as Julia, a pleasant but bland nurse who doesn't know about Ethan's real job, and thus ends up mostly as a helpless damsel in distress.
Nyah ended up that way eventually, too, but at least she got to be capable and formidable first. Julia picks up a gun at the end of the movie, but she manages to knock off one of the main bad guys by sheer luck. Abrams (who co-wrote the screenplay with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) draws a lot from the vibe of Alias, especially the early seasons, which focused on Sydney Bristow's efforts to balance a normal life with her spy adventures. But Ethan Hunt isn't Sydney Bristow, and although it gives the story more emotional stakes to put Julia in danger, he's never seemed like the kind of guy who's after a normal life. Still, that tension does help motivate the series' most entertaining villain, Philip Seymour Hoffman as sadistic arms dealer Owen Davian. Davian comes to a sort of disappointing end, and he's eventually supplanted by yet another IMF official gone bad (that's three for three in the series so far). Before that, though, he's genuinely menacing and scary, and his more intimate threats carry a weight that vast world-ending plots often lack.
The real draw for this series is the action sequences, though, and while Abrams doesn't stage any iconic stunts, he does a consistently good job of generating excitement and intensity, as Ethan and his latest team (once again including Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell, along with one-off characters played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q) pursue Davian and a MacGuffin called the "Rabbit's Foot," about which literally nothing is ever revealed. An elaborate kidnapping sequence at the Vatican is the movie's most impressive, and Abrams sort of pokes fun at Woo by making his one appearance of the hyper-realistic masks into a detailed look at how much effort it takes to create them. Abrams may not be the kind of self-conscious auteur that De Palma or Woo are, but in his own down-to-earth way, he manages to create a vision just as singular as theirs.