Saturday, November 11, 2006

Mission Impossible 3 revisited

When it came out in theaters riding on the coattails of the Tom Cruise backlash, I consciously avoided going to see Mission Impossible 3. Positioned as an early summer release by Paramount, MI:3 garnered surprisingly positive reviews but tepid word of mouth. It did excellent box office, but little in terms of returns for the studio. It quickly got lost in the frenzied tent pole release schedule of summer, becoming a foot note in discussions centering around Tom Cruise's personal life.

When I watched it on DVD recently it struck me what a smart businessman Cruise is. He has retained the essential elements of the premise but given up creative control to J.J. Abrams, who made a name for himself devising TV dramas - first Felicity which got some buzz being on a fledgling network, and then the profitable Alias and Lost. The result is a very sinewy thriller, smart in the right places and thoroughly entertaining. I felt it was the best of the three MIs I've seen so far.

There are some cool things about the movie that really make it work.

J.J. Abrams, who performed directing and (co)writing duties, is smart enough to realize that he's relying on well worn thriller cinema cliches to propel his movie forward. He starts the movie with a scene that is from about 15 minutes from the finale that makes it apparent what will happen in the movie. Its like the telling the audience: look, I know you realize where this is all headed. I'll tell you what's going to happen now. There, now in return for what I've just shown you, sit back, relax and let's see how entertaining I can make the journey.

The action in the movie comes in set pieces. There are three "missions" that are paced superbly, with the stakes and the intensity higher in each successive piece. In the final one, Abrams pulls off a stunner, rapidly mixing green screen shots with live ones and injecting plenty of emotion. Probably the neatest trick he pulls throughout the movie is underplaying key cliches. In the final mission for example, he focusses simply on the riskiest parts - the entry and exit and completely cuts out the middle, choosing instead to focus on the tension amidst the rest of the team waiting outside for Tom Cruise to return. Twists are presented in a disarmingly straightforward way and important people are disposed off with little ceremony.

The execution is not however without misteps. For one, Abrams spends quite a bit of time on the central character Ethan Hunt's (Cruise) relationship with his wife but struggles to up the stakes. Cruise is a terrific physical actor. He conveys his emotions with a straightening of the back, a jerk of the head, an open mouth, hunching of shoulders, the whipping motions of his arms. For anyone who wants to see a model way to exploit Cruise in a movie, watch anything Spielberg has done with him (Minority Report is highly recommended). Here, however, Abrams gives Cruise more emoting to do in tight close ups and then pairs him with Michele Monighan, who is a decent actress with good screen presence but short on the deftness required to tweak the audiences' emotions.

He is also stuck with the mechanics of the franchise. MI:3 has to have seemingly impossible missions that get pulled off with panache. And it has to be an action thriller. And this being the third installment, the pedictability is built into the movie. Abrams does his best to acknowledge this by injecting some wink-wink humor about MI itself but ultimatey he has to operate within its confines.

None of these issues detract from MI:3 being a solid popcorn summer movie. In fact, it's a bit of a tragedy that it will go down in history as a commercial disappointment.

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