Behold the ideal summer blockbuster. At the risk of trying to accurately predict consumer behavior, fears about this summer's box office should be put to rest by Mission: Impossible III. The best in the series, it has the requisite pyrotechnics plus snappy dialogue, exotic locations and the dry humor and repressed eroticism of a Hitchcock thriller. It also boasts a "Mcguffin" -- Hitchcock's term for a single, often inconsequential item on which the plot hinges.
In 1996, Hitchcock admirer Brian De Palma put his own spin on the durable television series in the first film, with uneven results. In 2000's Mission: Impossible 2, director John Woo piled on scads of vehicle chases and flashy shoot-outs, but the globe-spanning story about a race to intercept a lethal virus was muddled.
Here the franchise gets back to its TV roots in more ways than one. Director J.J. Abrams is the creator of two current series Alias and Lost that have raised the bar for small screen espionage and intrigue. He handles the quiet scenes in Mission: Impossible III with the same streamlined clarity as he does the action set pieces. Lalo Schifrin's famous theme and songs by Kanye West and Jimmy Cliff quickly set the right mood and contribute to the movie's well-modulated tempo.
The exhilarating action scenes become blurry on occasion but are never run-of-the-mill or overlong; only one, involving BASE-jumping between Shanghai skyscrapers, borders on absurdity. Of course the realm of the unreal is the sole place in which government operatives are capable of pulling off such sophisticated stunts. Not to put too fine a point on it, we watch a movie like this in order to see the impossible. We're happily sealed off from real-world obstacles and dilemmas. Injecting them just detracts from the escapist experience.
The best sequence, a Vatican-City kidnapping, harkens back to the TV series by employing its signature identity-swapping with the aid of rubber masks and a honey trap. Led by secret agent Ethan Hunt, an IMF (Impossible Missions Force) team snatches a perfidious arms merchant played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. It's a wonderful tribute to Bruce Geller's innovative television program. And, to inject a dose of unreality wrapped in reality, it suggests the Roman Catholic Church should be more concerned about security at the Vatican than the influence of The Da Vinci Code.
Hunt has been dragged back into the field -- during a party celebrating his engagement to a D.C. area nurse (Michelle Monaghan), no less -- in order to rescue a comely agent (Keri Russell) he trained. That mission leads to a series of tasks concerned with locating and identifying a device called the "Rabbit's Foot" being sold by Hoffman's character. In the tense prologue, we learn that Hunt's fiancé will be used as leverage, and the narrative consists of unwinding that old saw about spies not being allowed to come in from the cold and have relationships or a normal life. If it's not the most original premise, it's done with professional panache.
Cruise performs like an all-star athlete, executing the bulk of Hunt's stunts while being spotted by an excellent cast. There's no showboating in evidence on either side of the camera. The performances aren't drowned out by the special effects or vice versa. Newly minted Oscar-winner Hoffman demonstrates he can underplay to convincing effect. Laurence Fishburne gets some choice lines as the director of IMF and Billy Crudup convinces as his lieutenant. Cruise clicks with the sexy Monaghan, who's quickly compiling an impressive list of credits that includes Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and North Country. Ving Rhames plays the only returning member of Hunt's crew; he's joined by wheelman Jonathan Rhys Meyers, slinky Maggie Q, and Eddie Marsan as a British computer nerd who provides timely comic relief.
Any backlash against Cruise's media overexposure is oddly muted by the fact he melds perfectly into this role. So when Ethan disguises himself as Ron Kovic, the character Cruise played in Oliver Stone's Vietnam drama Born on the Fourth of July, it's a bit of a surprise. A self-deprecating sense of humor is not the first thing one identifies with Cruise's public persona or with the gossip about his private life. It's another reminder that quality movies don't always have to be serious.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated "PG-13" for intense sequences of frenetic violence and menace, disturbing images and some sensuality.)