The TV series Mission: Impossible had a great formula. Spymaster would go to the shops or the funfair to check his dead-letter drops. He’d get a tape recording from his boss telling him to do something completely impossible. He’d then go home to his penthouse suite, pour himself a drink and leaf through his photo album, while working out a way to do the impossible thing. He’d pick a few people from his album to help him, they’d fly off to some Eastern European country where they’d mess with people’s heads, pull off the plan, then head off home. Cracking. Lasted seven seasons plus a remake show in the 80s that did. You don’t get much of that these days.
Anyway, a few years back, it got turned into a movie starring Tom Cruise. You may remember it. It wasn’t very much like the original show, as it was trying it’s very best to be a proper spy thriller with tradecraft jargon like “exfiltration” weighing down the dialogue and the plot. The second film, directed by John Woo, wasn’t very much like anything except a John Woo film. We’re now on the second sequel and for the first time we actually have a film that sticks to the TV show’s formula, more or less. The trouble is that it’s still not Mission: Impossible.
M:I:III as it’s called is directed by JJ Abrams. He’s the co-creator of Lost and the creator of Alias. He also co-wrote the script with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, both of whom wrote for Alias as well. So zero astonishment here when I realised after a few minutes of the film that I was watching an extended episode of Alias, but starring Tom Cruise instead of Jennifer Garner. Personally, I’d prefer to watch Jennifer Garner to Tom Cruise on any given occasion but others may differ. Plus she did star in the very sucky Elektra, effectively writing off her chances of appearing as the lead in another action movie for a while.
If you’ve ever watched more than a couple of episodes of Alias, you’re going to get some ridiculously strong feelings of déjà vu with every moment. There’s the opening scene set in China that’s actually a flashforward from the main plot (how will they get out of that? And how did they get into that in the first place?), which is straight out of the first episode. There’s the trademark location details in the corner of the screen whenever they go somewhere new (“Rome, Italy”. No! Not Rome in Italy! I thought that was some other Rome…). There’s the stupid technology, explosive charges planted in brains, etc, all served up by a dissembling techie, here played by our very own Simon Pegg whose few appearances actually steal the whole movie. Then there’s the artifact that needs to be recovered, the so-called Rabbit’s Foot, which has all the hallmarks of being produced by the House of Rambaldi. There’s even a cameo by Greg Grunberg, JJ Abrams’ life-long pal who gets a job in everything he does.
Similarly, there have been Alias-esque changes to the few recurring movie characters. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has gone from being a typical cocky omnipotent Cruise character to being an angst-ridden agent who’d really like to kick this spying gig so he can settle down and breed with his new wife. Ving Rhames appears again, but instead of the all-business moody character of previous films, he’s now giving relationship advice to Cruise and joking around the water cooler with him. There’s a stupid cover front for the Impossible Mission Force, just like Sidney Bristow’s merchant bank cover for SD6. Short of a menacing, untrustworthy father and a double-agent mother for Hunt, there’s not much more that could have been done to turn him into Bristow.
For the first half of the movie, bar that opening flashforward, the movie still tries to be Mission: Impossible though, right down to the re-use of Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme for incidentals. But where the TV show relied on misdirection and the agents’ abilities to instill paranoia in their quarries, M:I:III relies on guns, fights and stupid Alias technology to achieve the ‘impossible’. It’s all done a lot better than in M:I 2, but the subtlety of the original has gone. The second half of the movie is pure Alias though, with everything revolving around the rescue of a kidnapped family member.
Nevertheless, the movie is still pretty entertaining. There’s some clever dialogue that only occasionally veers into purple prose. It has a good cast, with Philip Seymour Hoffman throwing in an exceptionally fine turn as the baddie. Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are equally good and are actually given some character-development time – almost unheard of in a Cruise pic. Laurence Fishburne delivers his lines as though he’s getting paid by the minute, but is his typical mesmerising self. The Cruise gives his usual strong performance, although – again as usual – he doesn’t actually act with anyone, just acts at them, completely failing to alter his delivery in response to his co-stars’. The action scenes are pretty well executed and should provide thrills for all.
This isn’t a classic movie by any means, but if you want something to park yourself in front of for a couple of hours while you chew your popcorn, it’s better than most of the other tatt on offer at the moment.
As a reward for making it through this review, here’s the opening titles to season one of the original show. Note the lack of Peter Graves, who replaced Steven Hill from season two onwards.