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Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has officially retired, which right away means that he won’t be for long because no agent or cop or detective or operative or stripper or spy in the movies can ever stay retired. The stripper one might be wrong, but hey, there’s a great hook for any screenwriters reading. Stacks McBosoms comes out of retirement to save the flailing strip joint from an evil new boss trying to convert the place into Off Track Betting. It ends with a showdown where she performs her famous jiggly pole dance routine. There’s also a subplot involving a plucky country girl with dreams of on-stage fame and a stash of uncut diamonds she keeps in the lining of her leather chaps. What was I saying?
Mission: Impossible 3. Right. Ethan now works in the training department, getting new recruits up to spec. One of his best is in trouble. Ethan gets the call to meet John Musgrave, his IMF Operations Director, for an update on her situation and is offered the chance to lead a rescue. He declines at first, but once given the details, naturally chooses to accept the mission. The problem though is Julia, his fiancée. He’s done the honorable thing with “Jules” and given up the spy game to settle down with a woman he finally, truly loves, though never tells her who he really is. A decision to go back into the field and risk his life is not one he takes lightly. He needs time to think if over. Like a minute or two. Actually, 57 seconds. That’s how long the recorded message from IMF is, and once it goes up in a puff of smoke, he’s in.
From there, he meets up with his regular IMF partner Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and two other IMF agents and they head for Berlin. In an abandoned warehouse, which at this point in cinema history should just be renamed “Place Where Bad Guys Keep Kidnapped People,” the bad guys keep their, well, kidnapped person. The team swoops in and undertake a daring rescue involving heavy weapon’s fire, thermal imaging, helicopters and wind turbines, collecting the wounded agent and getting her clear of the cronies. But there’s a snag. The kidnappers implanted a micro-explosive capsule in her head, and it was triggered when they escaped. Luckily, it takes a bit of time to go off, so Ethan can use the emergency defibrillator to short circuit the device. Unluckily, the defibrillator needs time to warm up and well, he’s too late. We don’t actually hear a micro-explosion go off in her head. That’d have been too cool. But you know who doesn’t think it’s all cool though, is Ethan’s boss, Theodore Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), Head of the IMF. He calls the operation poorly convinced and executed worse.
We learn that behind all this chaos is a baddy named Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who, with that name, is legally obligated to be a villain. It’s the law. And he fills that role with aplomb. Dastardly to a degree, Davian is an arms dealer, of course, and is in search of a thing called the Rabbit’s Foot, which is not, apparently what its name perfectly describes unless said foot is worth $850 million. He’s going to be in Vatican City soon, supposedly to obtain this mysterious object. Ethan learns of this very thing through Benji, an IMF Technician, who somehow is able to extract some data off some rather disheveled laptops recovered from the thoroughly exploded warehouse in Berlin.
Additionally, Ethan’s now dead agent secretly mailed a postcard to him before she was captured. In it is a video in which Brassel is suspected of being in cahoots with Davian. The team gathers together again, this time without gaining approval from anyone at IMF and go rogue, hoping to take down Davian and steal the Rabbit’s Foot. Before taking off, for good measure, Ethan and Jules tie the knot in an impromptu service at the hospital where she works, followed by an impromptu roll in the hay in a medical storage closet. He then leaves her and the crew head to the Vatican where they eventually capture Davian.
On the plane back to the United States, Ethan attempts to interrogate Davian. And by interrogate, I mean absolutely terrorize. When he won’t tell Ethan what he wants, and worse, mocks the death of the agent killed in Berlin (Germany), Ethan becomes enraged and hangs the arms dealer out the open bay door of the plane. While it is flying.
This ends up backfiring though, as Luther calls out Ethan’s name, and Davian, being the criminal mastermind he is, escapes once they have landed, and gets some revenge. Then it’s a race to the finish to save lives and stop the madman from unleashing what ever horrors are behind the Rabbit’s Foot.
Directed by J. J. Abrams, the third film in the franchise opts to avoid the cartoonish style of the latter effort and instead go for gritty realism. Well, to an extant. While John Woo focused on the flash and bang, Abrams makes it about the people, creating honest relationships between many characters that seem genuine. But, it’s an action film, and he doesn’t forget that either. The movie is, of course, filled with some spectacular set pieces, including the aforementioned helicopter chase through a field of wind turbines. Blades versus blades. Yet, the real draw is the late, great Seymour Hoffman as Owen Davian. His presence and inclusion dramatically shift the expectation of the movie. While the series had some big names before, such as the immeasurably talented Vanessa Redgrave in MI:1 and a brief cameo by Sir Anthony Hopkins in MI:2, the addition of Hoffman, and his expanded role as the bad guy, make a powerful impression. The hollowness of the second movie is filled with humanity in the third, and it proves once again that without the relationships, without the empathy, dead-eyed special effects movies mean nothing. While it ultimately doesn’t bring anything new to the table in terms of plot and tropes, the film seems like a solid step in the right direction, even if it does goes back to the well a few times too many. (Masks, anyone?) Cruise, however, only gets better as he continues to embrace the character, and we love to watch him be that character, jumping and running and risking life and limb. We’ve come to expect that from him, and he doesn’t disappoint.
Oddly enough, the set up for this moment occurs after it happens. The opening shot of the film is in fact, a flash forward of coming events, and while this rarely is satisfying in movies, it is the single best use of it since Charles Foster Kane whispered “Rosebud.” Okay, that might be a little exaggerated. Either way, a setup is pretty unnecessary but it can be summarized in six words: bad guy threatens good guy’s girl. So, um, that’s it. Let’s move on.
Before there is even an image on the screen, we hear the familiar crackle of an electric jolt and the very familiar voice of our hero Ethan Hunt, obviously in distress over said electricity. With the screen still black, next comes the voice of Owen Davian. He states, rather calmly, “We’ve put an explosive charge in your head.” What? In pops Ethan’s face, his expression rightly confused and fearful. He’s clearly been beaten. He’s strapped and handcuffed to a barber’s chair of all things.
Davian continues, this time asking for the location of a something called a “Rabbit’s Foot.” Behind him is a smarmy looking with with bandaged nose, looking disappointingly at Ethan. Ethan explains that he gave Davian this Rabbit’s Foot already, but Owen isn’t having it. He asks him again, this time telling him he will count to ten. If he doesn’t answer, then a girl in a chair opposite Ethan will be shot. Ethan calls her “Jules” and assures her that everything will be okay, but we sense it won’t. In fact, as the countdown proceeds, and Ethan is utterly unable to satisfy his captor, despite a steady effort of negotiation tactics to pacify the increasingly infuriated Davian, it all fails. Owen reaches “10” and fires the pistol, point-blank at the girl’s head. Jump-cut to the opening titles and the film begins.
The scene establishes very quickly a number of important elements, most importantly, the clear definition of who is good and who is bad. We know Ethan Hunt already. He is the hero, the master IMF agent from two previous adventures. What’s striking about Ethan right away is his position. For the first time in the series, he is clearly at a disadvantage. Yes, he’s been in deadly situations, but for him, these are like puzzles and he always has the solution. This is not the case here. Hunt has been defeated, that is obvious. What’s worse, he’s not alone. We don’t know who “Jules” is at this point, but she is someone of importance to Ethan, so much so that her endangerment causes him extreme emotional distress, something the bad guy, whom we also don’t know, has certainly intended. We also learn that the two men are not strangers. They have met before and apparently under reverse circumstances. The man with the gun is not only antagonizing toward to Ethan, he is decidedly vindictive.
Much of the scene’s effectiveness stems from its clever combination of clarity and ambiguity. We know what is happening, it is frightful and a little heart wrenching. But why it is happening is a mystery, and that is most important for it to work as well as it does. What is the Rabbit’s Foot? (A MacGuffin never really answered). How does Ethan and this kidnapper know each other? Who is the man with the broken nose? And who is the poor girl?
J. J. Abrams does a masterful job introducing the film, unabashedly driving the tone far and away from the previous entry. The colorful, comic book settings of MI:2 are immediately dispensed with and replaced with dark, ultra realism. But more so is the immediate shift in mood. John Woo’s film wasn’t light on emotions, but it was all done with a sense of fun, a wink at the genre and a zest for over-the-top. Abrams careens sharply into something much heavier, signified by the unseen electric charge that begins the scene. This jolt awakens Ethan, but it also jolts the audience. Instead of a tried and true opening action set piece, which is a standard for the spy genre, we are met with a confrontation. And it’s most assuredly action-less. The characters never move. Abrams straight away makes his film about the people and with zero subtly, paints them in striking colors. Both Cruise and Hoffman are mesmerizing, with Hoffman wholly embodying a caged rage machine waiting for a chance to explode. Watch has his expression changes, and his supremely calm demeanor sheds bit by bit as he ticks off his countdown. This is a man who gets what he wants, and whatever his nemeses has done to impeded that success, has truly set him off. More clearly though, he knows what and how to make that man suffer, and (as we learn later) predicted exactly that he would.
The camera is, in contrast with the characters, in constant motion, swinging sometimes dizzily in reaction to the characters. This accentuates the confusion and steadily builds tension. More affecting is the music, which really isn’t a score as it is a continuous hushed mix of background noise that sounds like the workings of a distant factory, with whines, grinds, and hollow, mechanical echoes. The entire 3 minutes and 30 seconds is a breathless, frantic in-your-face moment that serves as a teaser for what’s to come, and lingers in our minds as the film progresses, setting it all up. (Something the rest of the film is unable to match.) What’s brilliant about it all is the simplicity of its dialogue in revealing nothing but telling us everything. We don’t know who all these people are, but we know we will. We don’t know where they are, but we know we will. And we don’t know what’s it’s about, but we know we will. The scene is about three people and the immediacy of the situation. That’s all. The joy comes in discovering the answers to all its questions.