M: I 3 Review -- Mission: Passable

SD 6 -- no, the CIA -- no, APO -- er, the IMF has a serious human-resources problem. Over the course of three Mission: Impossible films, at least one person involved in each nefarious plot to destroy the world has been an employee of the agency that ostensibly represents the good guys. One wonders if Sydney Bristow -- sorry Ethan Hunt is the last honest person in the spy game.

With the first two installments, in 1996 and 2000, directors Brian De Palma and John Woo established the Mission: Impossible template as smooth, slick, kinetic and balletic. Now that rule of thumb has morphed into "bigger-faster-louder."

Who better then, to direct this new chapter than J.J. Abrams ("Alias," "Lost"), an A-list television maker who grinds out water cooler hits like they were ice cubes? Abrams has adopted a television style consisting of all peaks and no valleys, thereby giving viewers no time to rest. That may work for a 50-minute TV drama (especially one punctuated by commercials) but not so much for a 126-minute movie, which could stand to be trimmed by half an hour.

In the third installment of the franchise based on the gadget-heavy TV show "Mission Impossible," Ethan's mission, should he choose to accept it, is to save the planet from a super-duper arms deal that's going down amid so many jaw-dropping stunts that when he gets out the defibrillator, you hope it's for you, not the comely agent about to expire in his arms. The movie delivers the goods, though, frequent Olympian bursts of aerobic activity from Tom Cruise. Mostly, he runs - although he does do some quick calculus equations while catching his breath.

In the six years since we last saw Tom, er Ethan (it's tough to separate the actor from his characters nowadays), he's been in semiretirement, training new IMF agents and getting engaged to a pretty and perfect nurse named Julia (Michelle Monaghan, in a thankless role), who thinks he works for the Department of Transportation. Their relationship seems to consist primarily of repeating the name of a lake where they had an early date. Does Julia find it strange that Ethan takes her to a beautiful hospital rooftop to tearfully explain that he has to go away for a few days on a business trip? Apparently not: She leaves the roof and marries him downstairs.

When Ethan's most promising trainee, Felicity (sorry, Kerri Russell) goes missing, he heads back out into the field, teaming up with his old buddy Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, the only other actor returning from the previous films), plus new agents Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen (Maggie Q). They're up against slimy arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who's easily the most evil and most intriguing of all the villains to cross Ethan.

M:I III's plot is no more nonsensical than the plots of the first two movies. But from the opening flash-forward to the emphasis on personal relationships amid the chaos of spy work, M:I III plays like Alias: The Tom Cruise Years. The problem is that while Abrams (who also co-created Lost and Felicity) is very good at the small, personal moments, that's not what a film like this calls for, and without the luxury of a season's worth of TV episodes to build his relationships, a lot of the emotions come across as false.

So Mission: Impossible III is a mixed bag. Abrams gets in at least three seat-clenching moments of pure excitement, like a stunning Vatican break-in, where our heroes snatch Davian from a fancy-dress party to prevent him from selling a MacGuffin called the "Rabbit's Foot," (something toxic and dangerous and never explained). However, when it comes to the really, really big sequences, such as blowing up a bridge, where Davian escapes and vows revenge of Ethan's girl, Abrams loses his grip. Likewise, it seems, for certain conversational sequences; he goes with a super-duper close-up -- all pores and nostrils -- combined with the dreaded hand-held shaky cam.

Cruise has been America's reigning actor for so long now that all his moves have become signatures. There's the over-the-shoulder smile (shot in profile), the all-weather cocky grin, the "intense" look with cheeks sucked in, and, my personal favorite, the two-handed clutch of the head of his beloved.

Abrams stages the action scenes thrillingly in a modern, quick-cut, disorienting way, but flurries of close up shots in certain sequences are used that work better for the small screen, like during a balletic helicopter chase through a field of windmills. He slows things down on occasion, like when Ethan leans out of a speeding Range Rover for a precision pistol shot. The great "Aaaah!" moment of M:I3 is a leap from the top of a Shanghai office tower, but with digitization the way it is, was the jump real? We'll have to wait to see the DVD featurette to know for certain. That's why the film's analog tricks were a pleasure: a clever scene involving lip-reading and some good old-fashioned heart-wrenching mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

The Italian interlude marks the film's high point, as it allows the Authorized Personnel -- no, Impossible Mission Force its greatest opportunity for subterfuge, surprise and disguise, none better than when Ethan, wearing a mask of Davian during a glittering Vatican function, steals the rabbit's foot and kidnaps the crook. Even captivity doesn't diminish Davian's insolence, however, and soon the tables are turned on Ethan and his crew in a spectacular ambush on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. One must wonder though how Davian's organization knew to ambush the IMF convoy there and have a highly trained German extraction team with the latest military spec hardware in place.

Cruise has bumped his intensity up a notch, scorching through the picture in a way that seems restrained only in comparison to his appearance on a certain television talk show last year.

None of the impressive cast is given much to do character wise. (Jumping out of helicopters is another matter.) Rhames' screen presence shines out in his brief moments, though, and newcomer actress-model Maggie Q (from Hong Kong by way of Hawaii) sizzles and scores some immediate points. By contrast, the little-used Rhys Meyers gets lost in the shuffle. Only Laurence Fishburne, playing IMF top brass John Brassel, gets to chew on any crunchy dialogue, like "don't interrupt me when I'm asking rhetorical questions." Simon Peg, an understated English version of Marshall, makes the most of his fleeting but key moments as a motor-mouthed agency analyst.

As for Hoffman, this Oscar winner's stature as a superior actor invests his scenes with a special weight and interest. On the other hand, his involvement hasn't been fully exploited. Hoffman, with his blond locks and moderate girth, looks a bit like Gert Frobe, the actor who played Goldfinger. It's reinforced when Abrams replays the Bond scene of Goldfinger's death by having Ethan threateningly dangle Davian out of a private jet.

What the comparison points up is how this picture denies Hoffman a chance to fully express his character's personality, to show a little nuance, a mentality behind the evil, some humor or self-awareness behind the malevolence, or to toy with Ethan beyond the simple threat. A great moment is a throwaway one where he petulantly grabs a drink being served to him. Better yet is his dressing down of Cruise, which was splashed all over the trailer: "Do you have a wife or girlfriend? Whoever she is, I'm going to find her, and I'm going to hurt her ... " He radiates evil. If you have an actor like Hoffman on board, you'd think it would behoove the writers to cook up at least one big scene to let the man loose to really do his thing.

Production values are all supercharged in line with the tenor of the production. Locations effectively span the continents as well as the centuries, with Caserta, once again effectively doubling for the Vatican, representing the past, high-tech U.S. locales holding down the present and millennial Shanghai providing a look at the future. An explosive Berlin sequence is capped by a nocturnal helicopter battle staged amid a forest of wind turbines that looks suspiciously like the one in the desert outside Palm Springs.

An inspired middle-hour pumped by some solid action gives you an idea how good the franchise could be, but Ethan Hunt seems a bit lost in a post-Bourne, recalibrated-Bond universe. Action fans will love the big explosions, but will be impatient with the first hour. Spy thriller fans will be disappointed by the sheer implausibility of the script, which delivers conventional twists Abrams has taken from other spy films and shows, even his own. Under Abrams, M:I 3 runs like an average two and a half hour episode of "Alias" on the big screen. Check out the first few seasons of "Alias" on DVD for cleverer and more thrilling hi-tech spy games from Abrams.

Incidentally, I doubt Abrams will bring anything new to the upcoming Trek XI flick due out in 2008.

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