Mission Impossible 3

by Carolyn Petit

When J.J. Abrams‘ TV show Alias debuted, I thought it was pretty cool. Most weeks, superagent Sydney Bristow found herself on a quest for some Rambaldi artifact or other, and plenty of generic but very engaging spy action ensued. What made the show special, though, wasn’t the spy stuff. What the Rambaldi artifacts are and what they do didn’t really matter. They were just plot devices to give Sydney an excuse to jetset all over the place and put on sexy outfits. No, what made Alias compelling was the human element: Sydney’s relationships with her enigmatic father, her hot young handler at the CIA, and her diabolical but sometimes oddly sympathetic boss, Arvin Sloane. Season two was better than season one because the beautiful and charismatic Lena Olin came on board as Sydney’s mother, kicking the Bristow family dynamic into a whole new realm of spectacular dysfunctionality. But then Olin left, and by the time they offered her enough money or kidnapped Lasse Hallstrom or whatever the hell they had to do to get her to come back, there were zombies running around in Russia and I was all fuck this!” Maybe I’ll tear through the rest of the show on DVD someday just to see how it all ends, but I was sad to see it fall so far.

Now, J.J. Abrams has helmed Mission: Impossible III, and to anyone who has ever watched Alias, it’ll feel really familiar. Switch out the Rambaldi artifacts for the Rabbit’s Foot, replace sexy outfits with rubber masks, get that dude from Shaun of the Dead to play your goofy but lovable computer guy, and you’re good to go. Oh, and replace Jennifer Garner with Tom Cruise, of course.

I think Tom Cruise is one of the most fascinating leading men in films today. There’s something permanently impenetrable about him, which works in his favor when he’s playing emotionally inaccessible guys like Jerry Maguire, and probably also contributes to the public’s interest with his current craziness. We want to know what’s really going on in that mind of his, but his visage gives us no clue.

There are those who suspect that he’s gay and that his jumping on Oprah’s couch and pounding on her floor are just signs of him cracking under the pressure of the need to maintain an image of himself as enthusiastically heterosexual. Now, I don’t believe he’s gay (OH GOD PLEASE TOM DON’T SIC YOUR LAWYERS ON ME!), and I certainly don’t care one way or the other, but I think the rumors, true or not, underscore an interesting and unfortunate cultural crossroads at which we seem to have stalled. Nobody seems to mind when straight actors play gay roles. Sure, plenty of people object to Brokeback Mountain, for instance, because it’s about gay characters, but you didn’t hear many people saying, “I just can’t buy straight actors like Jake Gyllenhal and Heath Ledger as gay men.” We’re fine with that. We may even admire these actors for being daring enough to play such parts. However, let’s say, just for a minute, hypothetically, that Tom Cruise, rather than marrying Katie Holmes and having a baby, had come out as gay in the months before Mission: Impossible III’s release. There’s no question in my mind that the film would have been damaged and that Tom Cruise’s career as a leading man would pretty much be over. Many of those who went to see the movie would see Tom Cruise kissing Michelle Monaghan and be unable to accept it. “But Tom Cruise is gay,” people would think to themselves, as if it should matter anyway. It’s called acting for a reason. But it seems we’re not there yet.

In Mission: Impossible III, Tom Cruise plays Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt, and in the hands of J.J. Abrams, his character, for the first time, has a personal life. In fact, Abrams uses one of his favorite and most effective tricks from Alias to get us invested in Hunt’s life from the get-go, starting things off in a moment of tremendous distress for our hero and then flashing back to show us how we got there. Having Tom Cruise shed a tear almost immediately definitely helps to pull us in.

It also helps that the initial scene gives us a taste of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s monstrous and unforgettable villain, Owen Davian. Hoffman is both the best thing and the most frustrating thing about this film. He’s the best thing about it because, with so little, he manages to create a deliciously ruthless, cold-blooded villain we truly love to hate. He’s the most frustrating thing about the film because there just isn’t nearly enough of him in it. Still, he elevates every scene he’s in to greatness, particularly an interrogation aboard a plane that is one of the most compelling scenes in recent mainstream cinema. Hunt shouts his questions at Davian, but the cool calm with which Davian oozes his replies leaves no doubt that he’s the one in control of the situation. Even when Hunt goes all Jack Bauer on Davian’s ass and dangles him out of the airplane, it serves only to underscore Davian’s power and his own desperation.

Davian is shortchanged on screen time, though, because like I said, the film isn’t really about him or the Rabbit’s Foot or any of that stuff. It’s about Ethan Hunt’s attempts to establish a normal family life for himself. His pal Luther “Hey! Remember Me? I’m Ving Rhames!” Strickell tries to tell Ethan that hearth and home aren’t for men like them, but Ethan’s dead set on marrying his fiancee Julia and getting out of doing impossible stuff for a living. Hunt tries to keep his occupation a secret from Julia, but things get complicated when Davian and his shadowy accomplices make sure she gets very involved in things.

In the end, some pretty horrible things happen to Julia and Julia has to do some pretty horrible things to a few other pretty horrible people. For a minute there, I actually thought Mission: Impossible III might make a daring choice in the end, that Luther might turn out to be right and the movie might say to hell with the notion that all big action blockbusters have to end happily, with the hero getting the girl and the cultural hegemony being reinforced yet again. After all, no sane woman would walk off with Ethan smiling after going through the hell that Julia’s just been through. But, of course, Julia does just that. The film plays it safe, gives us a happy ending that’s quite absurd after what comes before, and yes, it’s not just the cultural hegemony that’s reinforced, but also our sense that our leading man is enthusiastically heterosexual.

Still, there’s plenty of generic but very engaging spy action in Mission: Impossible III. And Shanghai looks amazing.


  • Mission Impossible 3
  • by Carolyn Petit
  • Published on May 29th, 2006

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