A little less auteur does a franchise good in J.J. Abrams’ stripped-down, torqued-up “Mission: Impossible III,” the most stylistically spare of the popular spy thrillers and, not coincidentally, the most emotionally propulsive.
This is the best movie of its kind since “The Bourne Supremacy” and an altogether first-rate piece of summer escapism. Should you choose to accept this “Mission”: Goose bumps galore.
Abrams — the creator of TV’s “Lost” and “Alias,” here making his feature directorial debut — rockets out of the gate and never looks back. With no prologue, we find veteran IMF agent Nathan Hunt (Tom Cruise) strapped to a chair, bloodied and disoriented, pleading for the life of a woman we don’t know as a villain callously holds a gun to her head. The villain wants something called “the Rabbit’s Foot.” Hunt seems as oblivious as we are. A shot rings out.
Flashback several days. Hunt — semi-retired from field work, now an instructor with a boring bureaucratic cover-job — is celebrating his engagement to Julia (Michelle Monaghan from “North Country”), a nice girl from a good family who knows nothing of his previous life. Out of the blue, Hunt is summoned to rescue his star pupil (Keri Russell from the Abrams-created “Felicity”) from a crew of arms traffickers in Germany.
Though it will complicate his personal life, he agrees.
Joined by longtime sidekick Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and a pair of improbably good-looking newbies — Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen (Eurasian beauty Maggie Q) — Hunt leads a raid on the Berlin warehouse where the bad guys stashed his friend. The mayhem that follows is some of the most punishing you’ll see this year, capped by a hair-raising helicopter ride through a cluster of windmills.
Alas, the rescue doesn’t go precisely according to plan, prompting Hunt — acting without the authority of his supervisors (played by Laurence Fishburne and Billy Crudup) — to launch a reprisal mission against Owen Davian (Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman), a ruthless peddler of Third World super-weapons.
The mission will land Hunt’s team within the walls of the Vatican, result in an explosive double-cross over the Potomac River and lead them all the way to Shanghai, where Hunt does a death-defying Tarzan act over the city’s skyline. Naturally, there are cool gadgets aplenty: Liquid nitrogen spray foam and the like.
Abrams — inheriting the “Mission” mantle from Brian DePalma and John Woo — never gives us the opportunity to lose interest. His storytelling gets a tad scattered toward the end, as if he were trying to create future threads for one of his TV shows, but it’s a commanding effort. Hoffman’s role is somewhat sparse, but his casting is justified if only for the scene where he coldly promises to turn the tables on Hunt. Chilling stuff.
As a public personality, Cruise (“The War of the Worlds”) carries more baggage than ever, which makes it somewhat miraculous that he’s able to leave most of it off-camera. As a spy who literally jumps off a building in the name of love, his performance is robust, sincere and powerfully tuned-in, and to be honest, the term “silent birth” never entered my head once during the whole film. A truer test of a movie star there never was.