Film discussion

Looking back at… Mission: Impossible 3

Despite being the highest grossing movie of 2000, the Mission: Impossible series was about to hit the wall of development hell when it came to getting a third movie into production.

The first port of call had been to David Fincher, simultaneously a great, but also strange choice. Great because he’s a fantastic director, but strange because the last time he walked onto the third instalment of a movie franchise it had been for the Alien series and the results had been controversial, to say the least. He would eventually pass and move on to another project.

In the meantime, Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner’s production company had helped bring the Joe Carnahan film Narc to the screen, and soon he had been approached to write and direct. For a while it seemed as if he would be the one to bring Ethan Hunt’s latest adventure to the silver screen, with Kenneth Branagh, Carrie Anne Moss, and Scarlett Johansson cast in the lead roles, but Carnahan’s dark take on the material, especially in comparison the summer blockbuster fun of the first two, was met with disapproval and soon Carnahan himself was off the project. A few years later he himself would put his own stamp onto a vintage American television series on the big screen when he would direct The A-Team.

Amazingly it would be a longer wait for the third movie than it would be for the second. When Mission: Impossible 3 exploded on to our silver screens in the summer of 2006, it was would mark the big screen debut of a writer and director who had been wowing audiences for the past eight years on television and who, like Joss Whedon when he brought Serenity to the silver screen, had a combination of talent and geek credential to transcend his television series to something more movie worthy.

JJ Abrams had worked on several movie screenplays throughout the 90’s, having written emotional star vehicles such as Regarding Henry and Forever Young while also being one of the many credited writers on Armageddon. It was when, alongside Matt Reeves, he created the college set drama Felicity for The WB network that he started to get noticed, and it was while writing for that show that the seed for the idea of the college student turned CIA agent drama Alias festered in his mind.

Without a doubt one of the greatest works of the spy genre crafted for television, Alias was one of the most cinematic television shows ever produced, with a brilliant ensemble cast, wonderful production values, and a star making turns from Jennifer Garner. It was while in discussion for another project with Abrams that Cruise managed to watch the first two seasons of Alias, and with it realised who the right choice to helm the next Mission was.

When Mission: Impossible 3 made it to the silver screen, fans of Alias would have been in heaven, the film essentially playing like a big screen version of the television series; the script was co-written with Alias writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, it was edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, Greg Grunberg shows up in a cameo, the MacGuffin is straight out of the Rambaldi school of weapons of mass destructions, and Michael Giacchino’s music is dazzling.

Like Alias, there is also a feeling of the domestic meeting the spy genre. One of the brilliant things about Abrams’ television series was how it married high-octane action sequences with the more quieter moments of its lead character Sydney Bristow at home with her friends or family, scenes that sometimes felt like they had wandered out of Felicity or some other smaller-scale family drama.

It’s this sort of ability to marry these types of scenes together that helps Mission: Impossible 3 feel different to the other films of the franchise thus far, with Abrams’ interest in both character and action making it feel as if we’re actually meeting Hunt away from spy work for the first time.

There had been a reference to his family in the first movie, but other than that the series had always been about Hunt the spy, and this was the first time we see Hunt at home. Abrams being Abrams, it’s not enough to just give him a fiancé and friends, and in a similar way to Alias, he also has Hunt being secretive about his work because we need more drama and suspense come the end of the movie.

Following from a prologue that also recalls Alias‘ ability to open with the biggest “oh no” moment of the story and then subsequently going back to show the audience how we got there,  we then witness Hunt and his new fiancé Julie (Michelle Monaghan), being domestic, hanging out with their friends, before his old life intrudes. Hell, even the moment he meets his former boss and friend John (Billy Crudup) in a convenience store recalls many an Alias moment, to the extent that one wouldn’t be surprised to see Sydney and Vaughn somewhere in the background. The only thing missing is a telephen call from Joey’s Pizza.

Then, to keep the Abrams connections going, Keri Russell from Felicity shows up as Hunt’s protégé Lindsey and despite being killed pretty quickly (along with another Abrams alumni being killed off early in Ghost Protocol, it marks something of a continuation of the first film’s trick of bringing in a big name only to kill them off ASAP), she for a sympathetic character who we desperately want to be saved.

After criticisms of the first two movies being too much of a Tom Cruise vehicle, there are some concessions made to expanding the cast. This is still essentially a Tom Cruise movie, it centres around him and he’s the main focus of the action, but Abrams brilliantly surrounds him with a wonderful supporting cast of fellow agents; something that will follow through on Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie’s instalments. We get the pleasing return of Ving Rhames as Luther – the only actor along with Cruise to appear in every movie, – Maggie Q as Zhen Lei, Johnathan Rhys Myers as Declan Gormley, the great Laurence Fishburne as antagonistic IMF director Brassel, and the first appearance in the series of Simon Pegg as Benji.

Complete with Michael Giacchino bringing his own show stealing style to the music, but also paying tribute to Lalo Schifrin, one can feel the joy in not only making a big budget modern-day action movie from the production crew, but also paying tribute to what came before. Many an Alias episode itself paid tribute to Bruce Geller’s television series (a prime example being the Ricky Gervais-guest starring third season classic “Facade”).

On villain duties is Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Owen Davian. A sadistic arms dealer, the late, great Hoffman never goes over the top with his performance, instead bringing a sense of understated menace and disturbed humanity. He very seldom shouts his lines or goes over the top in the manner of a Bond villain, something that makes his performance all the more intense and disturbing, particularly when doling out threats to Ethan and Julia.

The movie delivers some brilliant set pieces throughout, from a fantastic break-in to the Vatican, to an ill-fated rescue attempt at the start, right through to the movie’s best moment, when Davian stages an escape from IMF custody on a bridge. Amazingly the latter, the biggest set piece in the movie, comes just after the halfway mark, with the rest of the movie opting to be more subtle and low-key in the final third; the majority of Ethan’s attempt to break into a building in Shanghai to steal the Rabbit’s Foot is done off camera, with only his daring building jumping dramatics before and after shown, while the film’s last act settles into more of a chase and confrontation drama as opposed to upping the ante even more.

This may prove disappointing to some coming off the back of the more high octane second movie, and in fact, the film is the lowest grossing film of the series thus far. A $397 million worldwide take isn’t bad by any means, but coming off the back of a $545 million gross for the second film marked a significant downturn. With what was perceived as audience apathy towards Cruise, his high-profile relationship with Katie Holmes was all over the tabloids at this stage, not to mention an embarrassing appearance on Oprah the year before complete with infamous couch jump, as well as an increased public interest in his controversial involvement in Scientology, there was a feeling in the air that maybe audience had gotten tired of Cruise, his movies, and his personal life.

Paramount Pictures would sever ties with him for a while after the release of the movie, with both himself and producing partner Paula Wagner opting to try to bring back United Artists as a major studio, to a not very successful effect it must be said, and with mixed reception afforded to his other projects such as Valkyrie and Rock of Ages.

As a result it would be another long gap between missions. Five years would pass before a fourth instalment, but the wait would be worth it. Cruise and Paramount would kiss and make up and with it would come, amazingly for a franchise entering its fourth movie, its best instalment yet.

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