Sunday, June 1, 2014

Mission: Impossible III (Paramount, Cruise/Wagner, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched Mission: Impossible III, the third in the series of movies produced by Paramount Pictures based on the 1960’s hit TV series (which Paramount acquired — like another highly successful franchise, Star Trek — when Paramount purchased the original producers, Lucille Ball’s Desilu Studios, in 1967) and starring Tom Cruise as IMF (in the movie it stands for Impossible Mission Force; in real life the initials mean the International Monetary Fund, which might actually have been a better “cover” identity for the central character than the odd one they supplied him as a staff member of the Virginia Department of Transportation) agent Ethan Hunt. Charles and I watched the first episode on VHS when it came out in that format in 1996 but avoided the three more recent entries in the cycle until now. Mission: Impossible III was released in 2006 and became more famous for the antics of Tom Cruise off-screen than anything he did on-screen. It was while doing the talk-show circuit to promote this movie that he started jumping up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch proclaiming his love for his new girlfriend, Katie Holmes (they have since broken up) and telling Brooke Shields she should stop taking medications (the drug he specifically said she should get off of was Depakote, which contrary to press reports at the time is an anti-seizure medication and not a psychotropic) on the basis of Cruise’s belief in Scientology and particularly its preachments against psychiatry in general and psychotropic drugs in particular. This got Cruise and his producing partner, Paula Wagner, fired from Paramount — they were hired by whoever owned MGM at the time to resuscitate MGM’s failed subsidiary, United Artists, but after making three movies there Cruise and Wagner broke up their partnership and the attempt to revive UA quietly died — and though Cruise eventually returned to Paramount to do a Mission: Impossible IV (and a fifth episode is already in pre-production), it was for quite a lot less money and control.

Mission: Impossible III was also the feature-film debut of director J. J. Abrams, who since then has done two movies in a Star Trek reboot as well as the interesting if ultimately unsatisfying Super 8 (a domestic horror-drama that probably would have been better if its producer, Steven Spielberg, had directed as well), though he wasn’t the original choice: Joe Carnahan worked on the project for a year and a half, shot a few scenes that ended up in the final cut, but then was fired and replaced by Abrams, who had attracted the studio’s attention for his TV series Lost and Alias. The film begins with a grim scene in which Ethan and a woman whom we later find out is his wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), are being held hostage by villainous international arms dealer Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman — this is the first time we’ve watched a film of his since he died, and while it’s not one of the credits for which he’s likely to be remembered he still dominates every scene he’s in), who’s torturing Ethan and threatening to kill Julia unless Ethan gets him something called the “Rabbit’s Foot.” Then there’s an abrupt cut to Ethan and Julia hosting a party — and it soon becomes apparent that the opening is a flash-forward, though Abrams and his writers (Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) don’t specify that; as much as I’ve lampooned the frequent titles on Lifetime movies that say “_____ days/months/years earlier” after the dramatic flash-forward scene, we sure could have used one here!

It seems that in honor of his upcoming marriage, Ethan has taken himself off active duty with the IMF and is content to train agents, and his first protégée is Lindsay Farris (Keri Russell), who’s been captured in Berlin (this time the title reads, “Berlin Germany,” with no comma and the country name in smaller type, no doubt so we won’t confuse it with “Berlin Botswana”) and whom Ethan and his old team — Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, the only actor besides Cruise who’s been in all four Missions: Impossible), John Musgrave (Billy Crudup), Declan Gormley (the well-overqualified Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Zhen Lei (Maggie Q, an electrifying Asian-looking actress who quite frankly would have made a much more interesting romantic interest for Tom Cruise than the relatively bland Michelle Monaghan) and their IT guy back at HQ, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) — are sent to “Berlin Germany” to rescue. Only they blow it — Davian has inserted an explosive charge into her brain (I’m not making this up, you know!) and sets it off, and though they’re supposed to be able to stop the explosive from detonating by using a defibrillator to stop her heart, then restart it again, they blow it and kill her instead. (I can’t help but think the use of a defibrillator is yet another gimmick in which the Mission: Impossible franchisees are trying to keep up with the Bonds: the latest remake of Casino Royale also used a defibrillator as a key plot gimmick.) Ethan and crew get read new assholes by their boss, Theodore Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), and their next attempt to capture Davian occurs at the Vatican, where he’s gone to meet potential buyers for his stolen terror weapons under cover of the Vatican City’s status as a sovereign state. They work out an elaborate plan to kidnap Davian by disguising Ethan as him (including 3-D printing a rubber mask of Davian and forcing the real Davian to read a paragraph containing all the phonemes of the English language so they can feed it into a vocoder and thereby alter Tom Cruise’s voice to sound like Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s; since their disguise was so good that it also altered Cruise’s shape to resemble Hoffman’s, I suspect Hoffman took Cruise’s place for these scenes), in the course of which they also disguise Ethan as a priest (unable to resist making a joke about Scientology sometime every time we watch a Tom Cruise movie, I said, “He was really convincing as a priest — until he started babbling about OT’s, Level VII and Xenu”).

Davian says he’ll escape and threaten Ethan’s significant other — he doesn’t know for sure Ethan has one (though he runs her down with the usual near-superhuman ease of a villain in one of these sorts of sagas) — and ultimately kill her, which provokes Ethan to open the bomb-bay doors of the plane they’re flying and threaten to push Davian out of it until the other members of his team remind him that Davian is worth more to them alive than dead. Only Davian’s people catch on that he is still alive and send attack aircraft to rescue him while he’s in transit down a Washington, D.C. causeway. A clue planted by Lindsay Farris (ya remember Lindsay Farris?) — a video concealed in a microdot — supposedly “outs” Brassel as a “mole,” ostensibly leading the IMF but actually working for Davian, which would be a legitimate reversal (kind of believable given the range of characters Laurence Fishburne has played in his previous movies — we wonder whether he’s supposed to be the “good” Fishburne of Morpheus in the three Matrices or the “bad” Fishburne who played Ike Turner and Othello), though eventually there’s a double reversal: the real “mole” is Musgrave, who’s realized that if you kill one Davian two more will spring up and it’s important to work with him and sacrifice a few agents along the way in order to trace the terrorist leaders to whom he’s selling hardware. Eventually Davian kidnaps Julia and takes her to “Shanghai China” — once again, the title reads that so we don’t think we’re in “Shanghai Monaco” — and I couldn’t help but reflect that a few days before Charles and I had watched Josef von Sternberg’s 1932 film Shanghai Express, also a Paramount production with a temperamental star (Marlene Dietrich) whose career had some spectacular ups and downs, but despite its own flaws a far more sophisticated and powerful piece of work; it was just a coincidence, but the comparison didn’t help this movie seem any better.

The idea is that he’ll hold her hostage to get Ethan to steal him something called the “Rabbit’s Foot,” which we never find out exactly what it is — though it’s in a clear plastic canister and there’s a biohazard symbol on it, so it’s obviously some sort of biological agent that can be used as the basis for a weapon — which, in the film’s most spectacular sequence, Ethan steals by spectacularly rappelling down one-third of a 200-plus story building in a scene that suggests Batman might have been a more appropriate superhero for Tom Cruise to play than Ethan Hunt or Jack Reacher. (I’m still avoiding Cruise’s Jack Reacher film out of disgust that someone so short as the 5’ 7” Cruise was hired to play Lee Child’s 6’ 4” hero — damnit, it should have been my hero, Christopher Meloni! — even though Child himself inexplicably signed off on the casting.) I give Abrams and his writers credit for trying to flesh out the bones of these cardboard characters — a career vs. family conflict isn’t exactly the world’s freshest plot gimmick (Cruise encountered it as early as Top Gun, where his married friend in the service — played by Anthony Edwards, whom I actually found considerably sexier than his co-star — got killed in the manner of innumerable 1930’s and 1940’s movies in which married police officers, firefighters, FBI agents or, once World War II started, servicemembers, got offed in the line of duty while their single partners survived) but at least it’s something to put some meat on these old bones — but ultimately Mission: Impossible III became yet another high-tech version of an old Republic serial, with shards of plot designed only to move us from one action sequence to another. I was amused when I noted that the film had been rated “R” “for intense sequences of frenetic violence and menace, disturbing images and some sensuality”  — let’s face it, “intense sequences of frenetic violence and menace” are the only reason you go to see a movie like this!

When I looked up Mission: Impossible III on I was amused that the user review that came up, submitted by someone or something called “bob the moo” from the U.K., was headlined, “Provides plenty of bangs for the buck but lacks tension or excitement beyond the superficial,” because that pretty much summed up my feeling towards the movie: I liked it better as it went on and I ceased expecting it to make any sense, which meant I could accept it for what it was and not look in vain for something it wasn’t and wasn’t intended to be. When I wrote about the first Mission: Impossible movie with Cruise I invoked the name of St. Alfred Hitchcock: “I couldn’t watch it without thinking of how much more Hitchcock — the real one — could have made of the central premise (Impossible Missions Force agent Tom Cruise is set up to look like a ‘mole’ in the CIA and has to deal with both good guys and bad guys in his efforts to keep himself alive and out of jail and at the same time hunt down the real mole) — indeed, Hitchcock did make a much better movie out of a similar story (though with a far more naïve central character) in North by Northwest 37 years ago!” But the skill of Hitchcock and his great predecessors, Sternberg and especially Fritz Lang, at making movies that dealt with the world of espionage that offered thrills and drew audiences and also contained multidimensional characters and sounded emotional depths seems to be a lost art today. It also seems churlish that Michael Giacchino got sole credit for the music — nary a mention of Lalo Schifrin, the former Dizzy Gillespie pianist who wrote the original Mission: Impossible TV show theme, even though not only is the big theme heard at least three times in this movie (in different arrangements) but some of the other cues Schifrin wrote for the TV series appear as well.