"It's very simple, just point and shoot." – Ethan Hunt
The Mission: Impossible series has a long history. Back in the 1960s, during the Cold War, there was an explosion of interest in the "Super Spy" genre. Some credit this to JFK's admitting in an interview that the James Bond books were some of his favorites. This lead to Dr. No being made, and then a host of other able espionage agents followed on the big screen: Our Man Flint, Ice Station Zebra, and others.
As always, TV moved in to ride the wave. The Avengers TV series was retooled from a standard thriller to a spy show after its first year (mmmm, Diana Rigg . . . ), I Spy with its pre-pudding pop Bill Cosby, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. which featured the great Illya Kuryakin, a "good" Russian spy, a daring move for the time.
Then came Mission: Impossible. Instead of a solo spy or duo, this was an elite team of spies who work for the Impossible Mission Force (IMF for short); if they failed they would be "disavowed"; and it had one kickin' theme song. The other thing that was interesting about M:I was that they worked more as con artists than the James Bond-style agent.
Led by Peter Graves, the team went after their target, gathering intel, and then using some cool spy gadgets and trickery they would stop the various nefarious villains cold. The opening bit of "Your Mission, should you choose to accept it . . . " and "this message will self-destruct in five seconds" became catchphrases. It ran seven seasons, matched only by the aforementioned Avengers.
It was briefly revived during the writers strike in the ‘80s, when they just modified already written scripts and ran it as a new team following in the footsteps of the ‘60s group.
Then in ‘96 the show was retooled to be a spy thriller vehicle for Tom (Minority Report) Cruise. There are a lot of people who don't like it. This is because after a promising opening, the team, which was a core component of the TV show, was wiped out, leaving just Cruise's uber-spy Ethan Hunt, and the movie became all about him. It's a decent spy movie, but to a lot of people (like myself), it didn't capture the feel of the show and didn't have the bits and feel that defined Mission: Impossible.
The movie did make a ton of money, and the sequel followed directed by John Woo, who apparently wasn't really paying attention and churned out one of the least thrilling, bloodless action flicks ever made.
Now the series has been handed over to geek fan favorite J.J. (Lost) Abrams. He's proven that he has the chops for this spy stuff, with an obscure little show called Alias. My mission, which I chose to accept was to look past Cruise's craziness to find out if Abrams can write a decent spy story with a male lead and if his directing style can carry over to the big screen.
The movie opens with the bit from the trailer, where we find Ethan in trouble, bound and helpless while the main villain Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour "Oscar winner for My Boyfriend's Back, I think" Hoffman) threatening Ethan's lady love. After this tense scene, we flash back a few weeks to see our Mr. Hunt living a normal life, about to get married. It seems that he's retired from active field work and now just trains new IMF agents.
However, his boss, John Musgrave (Billy "Almost Famous" Crudup), against IMF chief John Brassel's (Lawrence "The Matrix" Fishburne) objections, manages to convince Hunt to come back to active service to rescue a captured agent. So Ethan reteams with his old partner Luther Strickell (Ving "Dawn of the Dead" Rhames), as well as Declan, Zhen, and computer guy Benji (Simon "Shaun of the Dead" Pegg), to rescue her. The op doesn't quite go as planned, so Ethan and the gang start a globe hopping chase me/chase you after Davian, who is after some super-weapon codenamed "the rabbit's foot."
The movie gets a lot of the spy stuff right. We have chases, thrilling stunts, big explosions, exotic locations, nifty gadgets, near misses, double/triple crosses, and some great action sequences. Abrams knows his espionage genre and does it well. What I really loved is that he brought the team and the con-job aspects back to the series. There's a fantastic piece set in the Vatican where the group tries to . . . well, that would be telling. Now, there are still a lot of "Ethan Hunt, Super-Agent" solo scenes, but it's an even balance with the team scenes.
The next thing the film has going for it is momentum. It very rarely ever stops to let you catch your breath. Even the planning scenes are tense as the group hashes over what their plan of attack is. There are some tender moments between Hunt and his lady love Julia (Michelle "Bourne Supremacy" Monaghan). While these moments build the relationship between them, they are the pauses for air between the adrenaline-charged action scenes. Abrams's direction is confident, and he was an excellent choice for the director's chair of this flick.
But the movie does have a few downsides, the biggest being that all the characters are really thumbnails. Pegg is a computer/tech geek. Zhen is the hot Asian chick. Declan is sort-of witty and can drive anything. Davian is an evil weapons dealer. Ving's character has been developed over the last two flicks; and both he and Fishburne ride on their uber-coolness to stay engaging while they're on screen. Hunt is "Super-Spy in love" and Julia is "Normal Woman in Danger".
When it's all said and done, the movie is a fun roller-coaster spy ride. And for the first film of the summer season, it's hard to ask for a lot more than thrilling gunfights, cool action scenes and super-spies in action. M:I-3 is not very deep, and won't hold up to repeat viewings, but it's a great way to pass the time on a Saturday afternoon.