Abrams dreams the Impossible dream

by Glen Baity

‘“It’s 8:12,’” observes agent Ethan Hunt, ‘“and we have two hours until they kill my wife. Are you in or out?’”

It’s the kind of proposition that propels this, the third installment in the cinematic Mission: Impossible franchise. And the terms in this film are always just that stark: Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team, despite extensive training in hand-to-hand combat, demolitions, world languages and criminal psychology, always manage to land themselves in situations that are’… well, impossible. Yet somehow, at the very last possible second imaginable (usually thanks to some heretofore unspoken-of piece of technology, if not sheer happenstance), the good guys prevail.

It must be May.

It’s the rare movie that implies, in its very title, the amount of disbelief audiences will have to suspend to enjoy themselves. Mission: Impossible III, the first feature film this year to swing for the fences revenue-wise, has a lot working against it. For starters, the first installment in the franchise, which might as well have been called Mission: Incomprehensible, was a turkey even the White House wouldn’t have pardoned. There’s also the matter of star Cruise’s exhaustively documented tabloid exploits of the past year, which normally would have no place in a film review if it weren’t on the minds of every single moviegoer considering giving $8 to baby Suri’s college fund. More on that in a minute.

But this latest mission, should you choose to accept it, is a good time despite those mitigating factors. When we join him, Hunt is trying to break away from the secret-agent life with the Impossible Missions Force as he prepares to marry Julia (damsel-in-distress Michelle Monaghan), a nurse who thinks her fiancé works for the Virginia Department of Transportation. Those plans are put on hold when Hunt mounts a rescue mission to save his protégé Lindsey (Keri Russell), who has been taken hostage in Berlin.

That mission sets off a chain of events that leads Hunt on a world-wide scavenger hunt for an object cryptically called ‘“the rabbit’s foot.’” He proceeds using Bond-caliber weaponry and ingenuity, if not 007’s unshakable affability.

The script is passable if generally ludicrous, packed to the rafters with idiotic plot devices and flaccid one-liners designed to make Cruise look like the tough guy he clearly is not. But the story, penned in part by the film’s director, JJ Abrams (creator of TV’s ‘“Alias,’” about which I hear good things, and ‘“Lost,’” with which I am shamelessly obsessed), is engaging and fun, and what M:I:3 lacks in believability or originality it makes up for in pure adrenaline. The money shots ‘— planes exploding, glass shattering, 9mm clips thwacking into place ‘— might be standard fare, but Abrams plays them for all they’re worth.

That said, I sympathize with those of you on Tom Cruise overload, but let’s be completely honest: it’s not like you two used to party. It’s not like you have anything personally invested in Katie Holmes’ well-being. Cruise’s off-screen life is a fun little sideshow, but that’s all it is, so please come off it. I once read an interview with Billy Bob Thornton, one of my favorite actors, in which he professed a mortal fear of antique furniture. The lesson: a lot of actors are crazy.

But let’s return to the film, which benefits from at least one terrific performance from another longtime favorite of mine. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, fresh off a well-deserved Capote Oscar win, plays M:I:3’s criminal mastermind with palpable menace, turning in such an impeccable performance that one of the more impossible missions here is cheering for the hero instead of the villain. Hoffman, ever the professional, helps the audience along by playing his character as detestable as he possibly can, and the result is a great conflict at the center of what is, when the chips are down, a successful action film.

M:I:3 does begin to drag a bit as the double and triple-crosses pile up, and there are probably one too many twists that rely on the ol’ Scooby-Doo ‘“unmasking’” routine, but Abrams keeps the audience entertained with action, action, action. And that’s what it’s all about ‘— those who focus on the story’s plentiful improbabilities are missing the point, and losing out on the fun in the process. Haters be damned: the summer’s first blockbuster delivers.

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