It’s been almost a couple months since I watched the epic fail that was Mission: Impossible II. Now, it’s time for the only M:I movie I’ve never seen before, the one where Ethan doesn’t quite succeed at living a double life, Luther doesn’t quite succeed in getting through to Ethan, and damn near everyone fails at making me take “rabbit’s foot” seriously as a top secret code name.
Welcome, friends, to Mission: Impossible III.
Director: J.J. Abrams
First Watch or Re-Watch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: Personal Collection DVD
What I can definitively say about Mission: Impossible III is that it’s leagues better than M:I – 2 (admittedly, not a high bar) and not nearly as good as the first film. Like most movies, it has its ups and downs and mehs. More mehs than anything, IMO. Perfectly watchable but not terribly engaging.
There is, however, much with the explosions! M:I – III is JJ Abrams’ directorial debut, and while there’s nary a lens flare in sight, there are other trademarks, namely, weird red balls. (No, seriously. Look here and here.) Also, a Greg Grunberg cameo. The action sequences are serviceable, though not breathtaking; it’s script and character work, however, where this movie falls down hard. In regards to script, well. The rabbit’s foot I mentioned before, the thing that Big Bad Philip Seymour Hoffman is after? It is not merely a ridiculously named MacGuffin, no, it is the most MacGuffiny MacGuffin I have ever seen; it is the MacGuffin to beat all other MacGuffins. Which is to say that by the end of the movie, we never even find out what the fucking rabbit’s foot is. Shamelessly cheeky as that sounds, I can actually imagine a movie where it might work. This, unfortunately, is not that movie.
The problem, of course, is stakes.
Ideally, your audience should give a damn about the characters no matter what’s going on in the plot. But if you never define your MacGuffin, then all your story’s tension relies on your audience’s investment in the characters–something which doesn’t work in a movie where most of the players aren’t allowed time for personalities, much less backstories. I mean, Ethan’s fine. He’s Ethan. We’re on our third journey with this asshole now. And while Luther mostly functions as the good advice friend who no one ever listens to, he and Ethan share a nice camaraderie that works well in this film. So, that’s cool.
Everyone else, though. Man. Our two new team members are Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Maggie Q, and I couldn’t tell you a single thing about them except that JRM is, as in real life, an Irish dude, and that Maggie Q looks good in a red dress. Oh, and she prays for her teammates occasionally, just like she did as a kid with her missing cat. That last bit comes from a 30-second bonding scene between MQ and JRM, and I might actually enjoy it if it a) didn’t come so bizarrely late in the film that it feels entirely misplaced, and b) didn’t exist merely to take up time during Ethan’s “grab the rabbit’s foot” heist, a mission that we, by and large, don’t get to see.
Our villain, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is surprisingly no better. PSH’s line deliveries are a bit strange: sometimes, they come off bored and superior, which totally works, and other times they come off flat and monotone, which really doesn’t. There is also a spot of occasional yelling, which doesn’t help, either. I can’t help but feel that the disconnect might stem from the fact that there’s just so little on the page to work with. All I know about this dude is that he’s an arms dealer. That’s it. He has no defined goals, no real personality, no hobbies, no quirks, no affiliations or relationships, nothing but the vague reputation of being a Real Bad Dude. The M:I villains have never been particularly three-dimensional, but this is pathetic.
Still, in terms of stakes, the real problem is Ethan’s nice-but-mostly-clueless fiancee, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). And let me be clear: none of this is Monaghan’s fault. I don’t blame her or any of the other actors for the character letdowns in this movie. But here’s my problem: the film begins with a flash-forward where Big Bad PSH is promising to kill Julia when he finishes counting to ten, setting her up as the damsel in distress. Since no one ever explains what deadly consequences the rabbit’s foot could unleash, Julia is the only real stakes this movie can offer. To be invested in those stakes, we need to be invested in Julia’s life, and preferably in her relationship with Ethan as well.
At one point in the film, Ethan explains to Luther why he loves Julia: “Remember when you were sweet . . . what I see in Julia is life before all this. And it’s good.”
He’s not describing a woman here. He’s describing a feeling of nostalgia, an ideal, and a ideal does not a personality make. And once again, I can tally what I know about Julia on one hand: she’s a nurse, she has a lot of friends, and she doesn’t know why Ethan’s lying to her, but she’s willing to accept it because he needs her to trust him, or whatever. (Bitch, please. Julia should’ve left your ass.) It certainly doesn’t help that these two don’t have much chemistry with one another, probably because they’re rarely afforded the screen time to just, you know, be together. And while all of this is pretty standard “love interest in an action movie” stuff, it’s especially frustrating here when the entire film’s plot revolves around saving a woman we have no real reason to care about.
It is worth pointing out that Julia actually gets one of my favorite moments in the whole movie. Near the very end, Ethan has to deactivate the tiny bomb implanted in his brain by stopping his heart, leaving Julia alone to kill any remaining bad guys and bring Ethan back to life. It feels a lot like a sudden player character change in a video game, and honestly, it’s pretty awesome: while a 30-second gun lesson isn’t enough to make her a bonafide action hero, I adore that she manages to kill two bad guys on her own–and not just any two henchmen, either. One of them is, in fact, Secret Bad Guy Billy Crudup. This is HUGE.
Of course, Julia also saves our hero’s life with that good ole hammer fist CPR technique, but whatevs. Point is, while this whole scene is a genuinely cool part of the movie, it only happens, what, ten minutes before the film ends? Meaning you can appreciate Julia retroactively, sure, but that’s not going to help this movie’s lack of emotional stakes problem. For me, it’s too little and too late.
As always, this review is turning out longer than I anticipated. Let me wrap up with a few additional notes:
1. Keri Russell plays Baby Spy Lindsey, who gets double-crossed by Secret Bad Guy Billy Crudup and dies from her own tiny brain-bomb. Russell doesn’t have tons of screen time in M:I-III, but I like her well enough, especially considering this is really her first action role. (Before this, Russell was primarily only known for Felicity.) And that moment where Lindsey thanks Ethan for rescuing her right before the bomb detonates? Ugh. That one legitimately hurts.
2. As a Secret Bad Guy, Billy Crudup is ridiculously obvious. Once Lindsey tells Ethan to turn off his head cam, you know there’s a traitor in their midst. Considering they almost die in the rescue op, it’s unlikely to be Jonathan Rhys-Meyers or Maggie Q, unless they are very dedicated to the cause. Lawrence Fishburne is way too much of an asshole to also be a secret traitor, which was clear to me even before the movie tried a poor attempt at misdirection. Not to mention, LF arresting Ethan makes no goddamn sense if he’s covertly work with PSH, which only leaves you with Crudup–who, of course, busts Ethan out just in time for our hero to steal that goddamn rabbit’s foot.
I’m just saying the Big Reveal leaves something to be desired.
3. Laurence Fishburne is pretty enjoyable in this–I laughed out loud at his dickishness more than once–but the 180 he does at the end where he and Ethan are suddenly buddies? No. This is dumb.
4. M:I-III introduces us to Benji (Simon Pegg), who will play a considerably larger part in the next three movies. He’s . . . okay here? I don’t know, I definitely like him more later on.
5. I know it was Thandie Newton’s decision to leave the franchise and all, but I wish this movie had at least bothered to mention her. You know, just a quick line from Ethan: it didn’t work out, we’re still buds, last I heard she’s busy stealing shit in Tokyo, whatever.
It’s okay, Nyah. We will never forget you, even if Ethan Hunt did.
The Current Ranking
1. Mission: Impossible
2. Mission: Impossible III
3. Mission: Impossible II