Near the end of Mission: Impossible 3, Tom Cruise, once again portraying globetrotting superspy Ethan Hunt, looks at his wife and exclaims, with a full dosage of megastar bluster: “I could die if you don’t kill me.” The line makes only slightly more sense in context. For make no mistake, Tom Cruise and company have no time for such niceties as reason and coherence. There are bad guys to kill, vehicles to crash, lives to save, and villainous plots to thwart–all of which are to be done with a maximum of gunfire and explosions. Yes, the summer movie season has arrived in all its fiery excess, and this year’s first contestant is a haywire pastiche of movie-star glamour and dizzy pyrotechnic wizardry–a $100 million buffet of Tom Cruise and fireballs.
Mission: Impossible 3 is a movie powered entirely by blockbuster gusto. Narrative essentials like plot, character, background detail, and story resolution are all secondary to the frenzied movement from one action sequence to the next. It is a film that exists entirely in the current moment, the only concern being how to escape the immediate peril, no matter what has happened before or what might happen after.
In some ways, this is to be expected. The film was directed by J. J. Abrams, creator of the successful TV serials Alias and Lost, and it was scripted by a team of Alias writers. In shows such as those, where plot arcs can stretch out over several years, the goal is not so much to provide resolution as to keep viewers in perpetual suspense. Raising intriguing questions is far more important than answering them, for if too much is revealed, audiences won’t return. Subsequently, the focus moves from what to how, with stories built not around resolution, but around the intricate mechanics of action. Mission: Impossible 3 follows the same form as these shows, dangling conclusions just out of reach in what is essentially a two hour tease.
The plot, what little of it there is, revolves around Ethan Hunt, a secret agent working for the perhaps too-bluntly named Impossible Mission Force. Hunt, having retired from field work, quickly returns to active duty to fight arms dealer and arch villain, Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). In between shootouts and infiltrations, he decides to elope with his bubbly brunette girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan), despite her unawareness of his spy status. After she is kidnapped by Davian, Hunt is faced not only with rescuing her, but with explaining that he does not, in fact, work for the Virginia Department of Transportation. Talk about impossible missions: Saving the world from terrorist madmen is one thing, but owning up to lying to your wife is enough to make even the savviest secret agent grimace.
Spy films, it seems, are the perfect place in which to explore the dynamics of a marital relationship. After all, if marriages are built on trust and the lives of spies are carved out of lies, then the combination of the two ought to be a recipe for delicious dramatic tension. Abrams gives this issue only a cursory treatment–better examples can be found in True Lies and Mr. and Mrs. Smith–but the fact that we are seeing this conflict with increasing regularity suggests a prevailing modern anxiety about how to reconcile the necessary secrecy of the business world with the need for honesty at home.
Of course, as with most movies of this type, relationships are merely a diversion from the parade of extravagant action set pieces. True to form, the movie is loaded with dazzling disasters; it’s as fine a fireworks show as your local multiplex is likely to see this summer. Abrams, in his feature-film debut, directs the various infiltrations and attacks with breathless immediacy, deftly juggling multiple threads of action and smartly riffing on old action scenarios. One sequence sets a helicopter chase in the midst of a towering wind farm, while another has Cruise and his cohorts executing a gleefully complex infiltration of the Vatican. Whatever Mission: Impossible 3 lacks in story, it mostly makes up for it in explosive pizzazz.
The script treats the supporting characters as little more than stunt puppets, occasionally calling them up to impart a bit of muddled exposition or a dry witticism, but the cast is so watchable that such shallowness almost doesn’t matter. These are stock characters, no doubt–the sarcastic sidekick, the no-nonsense boss, the spry young agent–but between Ving Rhames, Laurence Fishbourne, and Jonathon Rhys Meyers, even the most familiar movie moments seem almost fresh. As the arrogant, power-mad Davian, Hoffman’s character is the least developed of all. Yet with Hoffman’s glowering, surly presence, he is the most formidable action-movie villain in years, a vigorously nasty purveyor of death who remains intimidating even when bound to a chair for interrogation.
Cruise, on the other hand, has the look of a child prince playing war with his father’s advisers, fiercely playacting through a carefully arranged charade. For its part, the film seems to play along by doling out a photo album’s worth of flattering imagery. Whether diving off skyscrapers or buzzing past a picaresque sunrise on a beefy motorcycle, the movie plays out like a customized catalog of cool–vanity shots for the superstar who has everything. Even the domestic scenes portray Cruise as the perfect househusband as he flashes boyish grins, charms party guests, and offers to help with the chores.
But Cruise’s role as ideal man raises the question: What do we expect from our men? It used to be that action heroes could be counted on to be brutish, redwood-sized meatheads who carried rocket launchers and spouted snappy one-liners. They drank hard and worked harder, and they refused to justify their efforts to those with qualms. But in our enlightened times, such unrefined machismo is no longer tolerated. The modern era requires that our heroes also have a conscience, preferably one wracked by guilt, as well as a veneer of social respectability. Cruise’s Hunt, then, represents the new paradigm for the modern action hero: sensitive, well-educated, cultured, fit, smartly dressed, socially graceful, and able to blast a half-dozen henchmen in the course of a single barrel roll. This is the new fantasy: upper-middle-class catch by day, action hero by night.
A domesticated super agent may sound far-fetched. But compared with jumping out of helicopters, getting some men to put down the toilet seat can be maddening. Maybe that’s why they call it Mission: Impossible.