The Movie Review: 'Mission: Impossible III'

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Tom Cruise loves women. We know this because over the last year and a half he's aggressively affirmed it in both the general sense ("They smell good. They look pretty. I love women. I do.") and the specific ("I'm in love! I'm in love! I can't be cool! I can't be laid back!"). We know it because when he made the latter comments, about new squeeze Katie Holmes, he emphasized his sincerity by treating Oprah's studio furniture like a ten-year-old's bed at a sleepover party. And we know it because he made Mission: Impossible III.

Just released on video, this third entry in Cruise's signature action franchise is comprehensible primarily as a two-hour testimonial to the many ways in which its star loves women. The plot, essentially, is that an evil arms dealer named Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes captive a female secret agent (Keri Russell) whom Cruise's character, Ethan Hunt, had trained and loves "like a little sister." Ethan first conducts a rescue operation, and subsequently takes revenge on Davian by taking him captive. Davian escapes, however, and continues the cycle of escalating abductions by kidnapping Ethan's wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), necessitating yet another rescue.

In between hostage-takings, we're treated to a series of scenes emphasizing Ethan's marriageability. Early on, there's the party where Ethan and Julia announce their engagement. (After Ethan elicits yawns by droning on about his cover vocation as a traffic analyst for the Virginia Department of Transportation, two female guests nonetheless gush over his exceptional eligibility: "I'd marry him." "I would, too.") We later watch Ethan impulsively marry Julia, a nurse, at her hospital, with plastic novelty rings serving as wedding bands and a convenient supply closet briefly substituting for a honeymoon suite. The movie ends with Julia--who's just learned that Ethan does not, in fact, study traffic for a living--meeting Ethan's fellow agents on the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), and his suggesting he may quit the biz for the quieter compensations of nuptial bliss. The last shot is of Ethan and Julia walking away, hand in hand, as his IMF colleagues burst into fervent, inexplicable applause, with Ving Rhames, in particular, raising the roof as if he'd just scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.

There is a plot thread involving more typical spy-movie fodder--national security, the arms trade, the possible end of the world--but Mi:III treats it with an indifference bordering on contempt. The villain, Davian, is trying to sell something called the "rabbit's foot" to some unsavory figures. I write "something" because the movie takes ostentatious delight in never telling us what the rabbit's foot is. A scientist theorizes that it might be the "anti-God," a substance or device so dangerous it could end all life on Earth, before confessing, "No, I don't have any idea what it is. I was just speculating." By the end, it seems clear that it is some kind of biohazardous material (it is, after all, kept in a container conspicuously marked "biohazard"), but the film still taunts us puckishly: When Ethan asks his superior (Lawrence Fishburne) what the rabbit's foot is, he responds, "Promise me you'll stay, I'll tell you." He doesn't. This is a MacGuffin eager to advertise its MacGuffinhood.

Thanks to the resolute vagueness of the international crisis in question, Mi:III has no real animating idea, at least apart from the lengths to which Ethan will go for his women. To a degree unseen since the cinematic arts lost Andy Warhol, this is a movie that isn't about anything, a handful of stunt set pieces tied together with a scarcely rudimentary stab at narrative. You could shuffle the deck, re-deal them out in another order, and the movie would hardly suffer at all. (It might actually benefit.) Even the best sequence in the movie suffers from a casual nonsensicality. Ethan has to infiltrate a party at the Vatican in order to nab Davian as he sells the rabbit's foot. In order to catch the unknown buyers, too, he decides not only to capture Davian but then to impersonate him, with the help of one of those voice-chip-enhanced rubber masks the series has gotten such mileage out of. The conceit leads to some enjoyable moments watching Ethan pretend to be Davian (which is really Hoffman pretending to be Cruise), but it's forgotten almost as soon as it's deployed. Ethan's IMF team doesn't see the buyers, and expends no effort looking for them: They were merely a fleeting rationale for his high-tech dress-up. More befuddling still, the briefcase which Davian picked up at the party contains not money but information about the heavily guarded location of the rabbit's foot, which Davian, contrary to earlier assertions, does not have. How exactly it can be that Davian is selling something he doesn't possess is a level of coherence the movie can't be bothered with. Whatever, dude: These are just bad guys, okay?

A subsequent scene in which Ethan attempts to steal the rabbit's foot from the Shanghai office building where it's kept is more haphazard still. Prior to the theft we're offered a meticulous cataloguing of the guards and security measures certain to be encountered. "From a thief's point of view, this is a worst case scenario," explains one member of Ethan's team. "Langley was a cakewalk compared to this," adds another, referring to the signature heist of the first Mission Impossible film. Ethan's entry into the building is dramatic enough, a Tarzanlike swing from the roof of an adjacent skyscraper. And then--nothing. Rather than accompany Ethan on his daring burglary, we wait outside the building with the rest of the IMF crew for a few minutes' worth of errant dialogue, until Ethan comes crashing out a window, rabbit's foot in hand. This particular mission may not have proven impossible, but it was invisible; all we got was prelude and postscript. It's as if someone decided to tell the Lord of the Rings story from the perspective of a few hobbits who stayed behind in the Shire the whole time.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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