Mission Impossible III (M:I:III) (2006): J.J. Abrams (Lost) Impressive Feature Directing Debut

Making his feature directorial debut in “M:I:III,” J.J. Abrams, better-known as the creator of the smash TV series “Alias” and “Lost,” proves that he’s also a gifted creator of big-screen entertainment, injecting fresh blood into the decade-long franchise, while retaining its basic ingredients of dazzling set-pieces, plot twists and turns, and state-of-the-art special effects.

Not to worry: The latest in the continuing adventures of super-spy Ethan Hunt features all the requisite motorcycle chases, spectacular explosions, exotic locales, and menacing baddies.

The production got off to a rocky start finding the right director. First, David Fincher (“The Fight Club”) was attached, then Joe Carnahan (“Narc”) came and left quickly due to “artistic differences.” Finally, star Tom Cruise, who’s also the producer (with Paula Wagner), handpicked Abrams because he admired his brilliant TV work.

Abrams, a huge fan of the “Mission Impossible” TV series, was intrigued by the concept of a team of expert spies, rather than a single hero a la James Bond or even Jason Bourne. Harkening back to the original 1960s TV series, Abrams zeroes in on an ensemble working together, rallying around its bold leader, and outsmarting the villians that deserve to be outsmarted.

But what really sets this installment apart is a greater concern for Hunt’s personal life, his marriage and his interpersonal relationships within the IMF. Which means, among other things, that Cruise gets to really act rather than just do stunt work.

In this actioner, Hunt confronts the toughest villain he’s ever faced, Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an international weapons and information provider with no conscience and no remorse. Selling arms to North Korea and Arab countries makes Davian an au courant villain, with carefully chosen territories.

The yarn is book-ended by a gruesome scene, in which Davian tortures Hunt, while using his captive fiancee as bait. Both Hunt and his girl are tied and bound to a chair. Davian demands to know the location of “rabbit’s foot.” In a tip to Hitchcock and his noted MacGuffins, writers continue to refer to “rabbit’s foot,” without ever bothering to clearly explain its function or meaning; their MacGuffin feels like a gimmick.

Nontheless, there’s quite an involving, if ultimately senseless, flashbacked story between the bookends, one with all the requisite twists and turns and an unexpectedly arresting payoff at the end. We don’t expect movies like the M:I series to make narrative sense, and indeed, the plot is full of holes.

To the filmmakers’ credit, though, Hunt’s challenge of how to balance his personal life with his work is pushed here to an extreme, to a point of crisis. They suggest that, like “every man,” Hunt has to balance the two opposing worlds. The only difference is that, because Hunt’s a spy, his home is more directly affected by his work. Invading Hunt’s home, Davian kidnaps his loving and innocent fiancee Julia (Michelle Monaghan). In this picture, Davian represents a nightmarish reminder of what keeps people from making commitment, from getting married.

It may be a concession to political correctness, with an extra nod to the international box-office, that the team is multi-racial and multi-national, including Afro-American Ving Rhames, as tech guru Luther Strickell; British Jonathan Rhy Meyer, as Declan, the master of disguise and languages; and the beautiful Chinese actress Maggie Q. as Zhen, the elegant yet tough woman who works behind-the-scenes.

Laurence Fishburne joins the cast as Brassel, the guy above Mr. Phelps, the director of the Impossible Mission Force, and Billy Crudup is Musgrave, Brassel’s right-hand man.

The plot kick into high gear, when Lindsey Ferris (Keri Russell, who was previously in Abrams’ TV series “Felicity”), the only trainee that displays the high skill level and abilities to be confirmed by Hunt as an IMF member, gets brutally killed. For Hunt, it’s both a personal and professional loss since she was his protegee.

The filmmakers give each of the ensemble members at least one or two significant scenes to develop their characters, and there is also greater communication between various members of the team while in action.

Hence, the relationship between computer expert Luther Strickell and Hunt is explored in greater depth. Whereas in the previous chapters, they were just co-workers, this time around, they are also friends who share their private lives. It may be the ultimate cool that Hunt, in the midst of a life-endangering task, talks to Strickell about his love life.

Each of the three “Mission Impossible” chapters is staged in a different style that bears the personal signature of their respective directors, though none of them bears resemblance to the original TV series.

Each of the chapters have some artistic merits. I am partial to the first one, perhaps because of Brian De Palma’s expertise in staging detailed and smoothly elegant setpieces. The second M:I, helmed by Hong Kong director John Woo is my least favorite due to its too complex but weak yarn.

Just as visually oriented as De Palma and John Woo, Abrams, nonetheless, employs a different strategy. As noted, he shows greater concern for grounding Hunt in a more recognizable realityat least by standards of a summer pop corn movie.

The torture scenes may be hard to watch (though not as gruesome and excessive as those in “Hard Candy”), but the dialogue in them is not mindless and you feel that something vital is at stake other than the requisite build-up for mano-a-mano between Hunt and Davian.

The third installment of the popular franchise, which has grossed over $400 million worldwide, is just as globetrotting as the previous chapters, effortlessly switching from Berlin to the Vatican in Rome and then all the way to Shanghai. Technically, there are several glorious set pieces, one in the Vatican, the other in nocturnal Shanghai, with Cruise hanging over the city’s skyscrapers.

Abrams, who co-wrote the film with Alex Kurtzman and Robeto Aordi, brings to the movie a similar blend of action, character, drama, and comedy that he brought ot his TV series. However, his attempt to make Hunt a “real person” rather than an element in the plot is only semi-successful largely because the material is still shaped–and treated by Cruise–as star vehicle.

Fresh from his Oscar-winning turn in “Capote,” Hoffman, in his first action movie, makes a great villain and a suitable match for Hunt. With considerable range and amazing control over his voice, Hoffman takes his role seriously; his is not a stereotypical or movieish villain. Acting for the second time with Cruise (the first was in “Magnolia,” as the nurse of the dying Jason Robards who reduces Cruise to tears), Hoffman challenges Cruise to go deeper and farther than he has in the first two installments.

With all the emphasis on team work in the story, and ensemble acting in the movie, the realities of the marketplace are such that, ultimately, the commercial success of this chapter rests on the star luster of Cruise, who’s recently been (perhaps too much) in the news, more for his offscreen than onscreen activities.

An enjoyable retro roller-coaster, the movie sets the bar high for the season’s other blockbusters. Kicking off the summer season May 5, Abrams’ actioner has the field for itself for one week only; Petersen’s “Poseidon,” opens a week later. Perhaps more importantly, reenergized by Abrams, “M:I: III” shows that there is still blood and sweat to be squeezed out of the franchise, just when it began to be seriously threatened by the postmodern coolness of Matt Damon’s “Bourne Supremacy” film series.