It wouldn’t be a million miles from the truth to say that the third outing for Tom Cruise’s flippy/dangly super spy Ethan Hunt is probably the most ignored – and criminally so.
Following 6 years after the underachieving Mills & Boon gunplay of John Woo’s first sequel, TV wunderkind J.J. Abrams was hired to keep the ever changing directorial rosta fresh thanks to his work with such shows as Alias and therefore gifted us with the “tense one” of the series. A claustrophobic, sweat strewn, race against time which somehow manages to achieve the most impossible mission of all: Humanize the enigma that is Ethan Hunt.
We rejoin Cruise’s alter ego in a far different period in his life as after an innumerable amount of missions for IMF (most of which probably involved him clinging to something either really high or going really fast) we find him retired from active duty and a mentor to new trainees. Not only this but Hunt has settled down with down to earth nurse Julia and is engaged to be married and is in the act of celebrating the upcoming nuptials until an IMF buddy get is contact. It seems that one of his trainees has gotten herself captured in Berlin while on a mission to locate ruthless arms dealer Owen Davian and the force need Ethan to join an already assembled team to break her out. This sets into play a dangerous game of global cat and mouse as Hunt and his team strive to locate, capture and contain Davian over missions that involve infiltrating the Vatican, shooting down drones in a vicious firefight on the Chesapeake Bridge in Virginia and desperately trying to obtain a mysterious WMD in Shanghai, but the greatest threat may yet lay ahead when Davian figures out that Hunt has a loved one…
Starting, not with a previous mission currently in progress like other movies in the series, but instead leaping ahead to an unbearably tense standoff that takes place two thirds during the film, Abrams makes things abundantly clear that this is going to be more about a film about who Ethan is rather than what he can do. Handcuffed to a chair by people unknown, in whereabouts unknown, Ethan looks on as the glowering bad guy (played with cold, disinterested menace by the late great Phillip Seymore Hoffman) jams a gun to the head of a bound woman we’ve haven’t met yet and starts repeatedly asking a question we can’t possibly understand – it’s wonderfully disorienting and immediately puts the hero on the wrong foot as the villain starts to count to ten. We are then treated to an acting masterclass as Hunt switches tactics to desperately diffuse the situation everytime the slow, monotonous count increases. Cruise literally goes from smug, controlling, bluffing, understanding, threatening, reasoning and begging in about a minute and it’s thrilling to watch – in fact it may actually be the most thrilling, edge-of-your-seat thing in a movie full of them and the film technically hasn’t even started yet, but it makes one thing painfully clear. In this film, Hunt is extraordinarily vulnerable.
Another thing that makes M:I 3 separate itself is the shift of the team dynamic into something approaching a family dynamic. Whereas the teams from other movies were either plants, traitors, comedic or destined for death, Abrams strives to make the group that surrounds his lead willing to do anything to help their leader. Ving Rhames adds an uncle-like gravitas to the returning Luther Stickwell and we welcome the comedy stylings of Abrams good luck charm Simon Pegg as tech support Benji Dunn alongside Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Myers to round out this movie’s insanely dedicated team of agents, all of which ground the insanity. However, none ground things as much as Michelle Monaghan as Hunt’s wife Julia, who is a bastion of relatable normality before things start exploding.
And explode they fucking do. While it would be fair to claim that the action in this third ho round is missing some of the memorable imagery that the whole series regularly boasts (there’s no Burj Khalifa climb, no plane dangle and no silent, wire assisted computer hack), it’s still of a vastly high quality and bowl squirmingly exciting, but among the helicopter chases and death defying building swings, the most stirring moment stands out as the unbroken shot of twenty seconds of Tom Cruise bolting at top speed through Shanhai like a whippet with it’s balls on fire. As you watch this man tear through crowds, screaming warnings in Chinese while the camera struggles to keep up, you see the stunt performer Cruise desperately want to be come to the fore in a way you quite haven’t in the past. He wants you to believe in Hunt, in EVERYTHING thing he does, not just the dialogue but in the things others might hand over to a stunt double and it bloody works too.
Add in genuinely sweet character moments (watch Hunt utilise his spy training during a party to lip read his wife as she gives compliments about him) and some hugely entertaining cameos (Lawrence Fishburn as the fearsome, bullshit despising, current head of IMF has an amazing line in ball busting dialogue and it’s a genuine shame he didn’t return) Mission: Impossible 3 may not have stood out as much as it should have at the time of it’s release, but it’s proved itself over the years to be a remarkably solid entry that deserves to be taken off the disavowed list.