Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, some friends and I trekked over to that big, blue Church of Scientology building on Sunset Boulevard and watched a free screening of a little movie called Orientation: A Scientology Information Film, which featured, among other memorable moments, a scene in which Kirstie Alley (identified onscreen only as “Actress”) stared dead-eyed into the camera and said, “If it wasn’t for Scientology, I’d be dead right now.” Ms. Alley’s testimony notwithstanding, none of us signed up for an auditing session that day, or left our actual names and phone numbers with the naval-uniformed officers at the reception desk. But flash-forward a decade or so, and I couldn’t escape an acute feeling of déjà vu during the opening reels of Mission: Impossible III, with all their blather about bugs implanted in people’s brains and the imminent destruction of the world by a theoretical compound called the “anti-God” — and, not least, their relentless exalting of the movie’s producer and star, Tom Cruise, as the apotheosis of red-blooded American masculinity.
Turns out Mission: Impossible III doesn’t need the hard sell. Once the movie, which purports to have been written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and J.J. Abrams (who also directed), stops feeling like L. Ron Hubbard gave it an uncredited polish and starts getting down to the business of dazzling us with its secret-agent derring-do, it becomes considerably more gripping, until that’s exactly what you find yourself doing to the armrests of your theater seat. As this third big-screen helping of the 1966–73 television series begins, topflight IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has traded fieldwork for a less risky gig as a trainer of other agents and settled down to a cozy life in the Virginia suburbs with his girlfriend Julia (doe-eyed Katie Holmes surrogate Michelle Monaghan), who thinks Ethan is nothing more than a gainfully employed traffic analyst. It’s not long, though, before Ethan is lured back into active service, when a bright young agent (Keri Russell) he trained is abducted on assignment in Berlin.
You don’t need to be a master at plot decryption to figure out what’s coming next: The rescue mission is an unqualified disaster; the villain du jour (Philip Seymour Hoffman as a black-market arms dealer) comes gunning for Hunt and his ladylove; and Hunt, through a series of double- and triple-crosses, finds himself both framed as a rogue agent and forced to abet Hoffman’s quest for an elusive object known as the rabbit’s foot. But it’s a tribute to Abrams’ skill, in his feature-directing debut, that he keeps M:I III steadily on the rails, in spite of — and in some ways because of — its dire predictability. For Abrams, who created those pop-culture juggernauts Alias and Lost, is television through and through: He understands the primal appeal of a classic suspense setup (like, say, a canister filled with toxic chemicals rolling through a busy city street) no matter how many times we’ve seen it before, and he’s smartly organized the film as a series of exciting minicliffhangers rather than as one long buildup to some orgiastic, Wagnerian finale. Admittedly, we’re a long way here from the extravagant cinematic grandeur that the first Mission: Impossible film achieved under the masterful craftsmanship of Brian De Palma, but we’re also far from the fiery overkill of John Woo’s M:I II, which is certainly not a bad thing.
M:I III actually gets better as it goes along (and spans the globe). If the Berlin sequence, with its overuse of close-ups and whiplash-inducing flurries of chaotic action, feels like something from the Alias cutting-room floor, the subsequent Vatican City set piece (in which onetime seminarian Cruise gets to dress up as a priest) is considerably more spacious and luxuriant, and by the time we get to Shanghai, the movie is a juggernaut that nothing can stop. Moreover, the longer M:I III stays onscreen, the more opportunity it gives us to ponder the essence of Mr. Cruise, who hurls himself, quite literally, into the role with the same dogged intensity with which he moves through life itself.
In other words, Cruise plays Ethan Hunt in much the way he plays Tom Cruise — the Syracuse kid from a broken home who overcame his dyslexia to become one of the biggest movie stars of the 20th and 21st centuries, who has never met an obstacle he couldn’t overcome or a challenge he didn’t embrace, and who has remained at the top of his game despite numerous public expressions of fanaticism (religious and otherwise) that would have caused most Hollywood careers to self-destruct in less than five seconds. But Cruise is inviolable — no sooner does he enter the frame than his innate charisma takes over and all that tabloid guff seems a thing of the past. He’s probably the most graceful physical performer to occupy the screen since Burt Lancaster, and in this sort of action role, he’s just about peerless, whether jumping across a 15-foot gap in the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, sprinting through the streets of Shanghai like some great leggy beast closing in on its prey, or merely flashing that million-watt smile while remaining icy cool under pressure. What I’m saying is that Cruise really is superior to us mere mortals, that he’s faster and stronger and more focused — and, well, just better — than you or I could ever hope to be, and that this is the very thing that draws us to him, and probably what repels us too. He may not be a great actor, but to find a greater movie star would be a nigh impossible mission.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III | Directed by J.J. ABRAMS | Written by ALEX KURTZMAN, ROBERTO ORCI ?and ABRAMS, based on the television series created by BRUCE ?GELLER | Produced by TOM CRUISE and PAULA WAGNER | Released ?by Paramount Pictures | ?Citywide