The assignment: To use all the charisma, star power and acting talent in his arsenal to elevate a bombastic, preposterous comic book of a motion picture into something people over 15 won't mind admitting they actually enjoyed, at least in places. The outcome: Mission accomplished.
The third installment in the decade-old franchise is the most palatable yet. Which says a lot about the versatility and enduring appeal of its star. Of course, I'm talking about Philip Seymour Hoffman. Fresh from Capote, the Oscar winner owns this movie, and single-handedly infuses whatever credibility and entertainment value it possesses beyond that of a typical lobotomized popcorn pic. Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Jonathon Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q and Laurence Fishburne merely come along for the ride.
The story certainly wouldn't have saved this blockbuster from itself. In the six years since the first sequel, Cruise's Special Agent Ethan Hunt has retired from fieldwork and has become a trainer. He has rediscovered, "what life was like before this," as he explains to Rhames when asked about his plans to marry a nice young woman (Michelle Monaghan) who knows nothing about what he does for a top-secret living. She thinks he's a paper pusher at the Department of Traffic. Now there's a viable cover for a guy who looks like Tom Cruise. Why didn't they just go with librarian?
Anyway, worlds collide when an agent he trained is killed on assignment in Berlin. Tom takes this personally and rejoins his team to track down the international arms dealer responsible. Monaghan begins to suspect something's up when her fiance has to leave town for the third or fourth emergency traffic conference in a matter of days, but Hunt is a highly trained professional who knows just what to say: "I need you to trust me." OK, then.
The next thing you know, helicopters are chasing each other through the giant propellers of a wind farm at night, high-tech sticky bombs are hurled in every direction, and Cruise, of course, is plummeting from great heights only to dangle inches from the ground. At this point, anyone over 15 would be squinting to read the back of their Goobers box just to stay awake, were it not for a cheap but effective trick the filmmakers have played.
You see, the movie is book-ended by sequences in which Hoffman -- as elusive international arms dealer Owen Davian -- has both Hunt and his lady love strapped into chairs. As the story opens, he's pointing a gun at her head and counting to 10. "Where is the Rabbit's Foot?" he asks an ever-sweatier Hunt over and over again, until he runs out of numbers, the gun goes off, and we fade to black. Everything from that point on is a flashback leading up to this. So no matter how off-the-wall or cartoonish the proceedings get, we can't help wanting them to proceed so we can get back to that visceral, cliffhanging moment and find out how Hunt can possibly save the day. Not to mention his fiancee.
As I say, the framing device is devilishly effective -- unlike so much of the rest of the film, which is for the most part a blur of coincidences left unexplained, story lines left dangling and action scenes left over from other action films.
Mission: Impossible III, in fact, violates the first rule of movie realism: No rubber masks. Not once but twice, characters wear full head disguises to pass as other characters, and other characters in the film do not detect the rubbery ruse. You'll recall this was a point of widespread ridicule with regard to the first M:I (Jon Voight whipped one off to reveal his true identity toward the end). Before graduating from film school, all future directors should be required to take a vow that they'll never resort to the rubber mask, unless they happen to be employed by the Disney animation department.
Thankfully, Hoffman comes to the rescue, creating one of the big screen's most amusing baddies in recent memory. Super-rich, morally bankrupt and coldblooded as a Frigidaire filled with lizards, the dapper Davian has gotten his hands on a toxin of mass destruction. The Rabbit's Foot is the thermos-like container in which the lethal substance is stored. He plans to sell it to an ill-defined rogue organization for bazillions, but Cruise throws a wrench in those plans.
The agent even succeeds in capturing Davian at one point, and it's a juicy encounter. When grilled about his evil scheme, the unruffled villain answers, "What I sell and who I sell it to are the least of your problems . . . I'm gonna find her and I'm gonna hurt her," he calmly promises after learning the agent has a fiancee.
His escape from custody is the definition of cinematic silliness. As is Monaghan's abduction just moments later. But what do we care? They get us one step closer to resolution of that cliffhanger, so whatever, dudes. Is the final face-off worth the wait? Anyone who's seen the first two movies will hardly be astonished to learn that it is not -- that a cheap stunt, in fact, is involved. But, hey, for a couple of hours the suspense will kill you, a handful of lines will make you laugh, and one or two of the action sequences will offer a bona fide thrill.
The picture will also make you forget about all the nutty headlines Cruise has made over the past year or two, and if that's not an impossible mission, I don't know what is.