This dude is a speed demon, so I’m not sure what I’m in store for.
— Sway, MTV Diary: Tom Cruise and Sway
The Rabbit’s Foot, the Rabbit’s Foot. Mission: Impossible III is all about the Rabbit’s Foot. From the first scene — in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) sits tied to a chair, snarling at his tormenter Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — the conversation, such as it is, focuses keenly on this rabbit’s foot. “The Rabbit’s Foot or she dies,” smirks Davian, gun pointed odiously at Ethan’s fearful, gagged wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Ethan strains against his bonds. His eye is red and also almost-teary, in tender-intense close-up. “I swear to god I’m gonna kill you!” he grimaces. Grrrr.
Wait. Ethan Hunt has a wife?
This would be the new Ethan Hunt, handsome and harsh and also vulnerable. The refurbishing comes courtesy of the Cruise-selected J.J. Abrams, the guy behind Alias and Felicity, sensational soaps devoted to the complexities of girls, whether negotiating global espionage or college, respectively. That’s not to say that Ethan is particularly complicated in his third movie installment; he is, after all, Tom Cruise, that most dashing and limited of actors. But he does have a love interest who lasts more than a scene, to whom he appears actually devoted, who completes him.
Actually, that’s not totally true. Julia spends most of the movie rather out of sight, so that Ethan can worry about her. He’s walked away from field ops and committed himself to training new IMF agents in order to maintain this excellent relationship that is premised on a rather egregious lie (she thinks he studies traffic patterns for the Department of Transportation). Still, Ethan thinks he’s left the spy business behind, until he hasn’t. That first scene, the one that introduces Davian and Ethan and the girl, takes place some time after the bulk of the action, which sets up Ethan’s new life and the mission that does indeed, disrupt that delirious new life.
But just as he’s toasted his bride to be, comfy in the metaphorical arms of her siblings and a crowd of friends who disappear after this one scene, Ethan gets one of those secret codey messages on the phone and wiffft, like Laurence Harvey in Manchurian Candidate, he’s lied to Julia about needing ice cubes and zipped off to the 7-11 to meet up with Musgrave (Billy Crudup), who’s got one of those can’t-refuse-it offers: Davian has kidnapped Ethan’s first agent trained, Lindsey (Keri Russell, who, for all her super-shooting gumption here, will forever be Felicity) and is perpetrating all manner of abuses upon her in order to obtain crucial information.
And before you can say Sydney Bristow, Ethan’s watching his assignment transmitter self-destruct in a wisp of dramatic smoke, and leaving Julia and the dog for a last minute “business trip.” Cut to a gorgeous sunrise, Ethan riding his need-for-speed bike, helmetless and oh so in love with himself. He hooks up with his boy Luther (Ving Rhames), who gives him proper advice concerning “this whole getting married thing.” It isn’t such a great idea, because, well, “Dishonesty poisons everything”; Ethan believes himself, so he’s not quite able to see this point, but it’s a recurring, crucial question in all of Abrams’ work (including Lost). Ethan never does quite get it, because he’s so implacably himself.
But if Ethan can only punish deceit (except in himself), his cohorts evince subtler turns of mind. In fact, the IMF franchise suits Abrams’ interests — the surprises and masks, the gizmos, the lively little guys, here including a couple of beautiful newbies, Zhen (Maggie Q) and Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and an aptly twitchy tech, Benji (Simon Pegg). (When he hears Davian is selling some bit of tech for $850 million, Benji pronounces the doom-and-gloom instantly, imagining a near future when the world will be “eviscerated by technology.”)
The hyper-focused Ethan is most baffled by his multiply dimensioned new boss, Brassel (Laurence Fishburne). During one of those office meeting scenes that usually slow down action movies, Brassel turns a challenge into a philosophical lesson: “It’s unacceptable,” he declares, “that chocolate makes you fat, but I’ve eaten my share and, well…” When an underling persists in challenging him, Brassel lays him out: “Don’t interrupt me when I’m asking rhetorical questions.”
Alas, a movie titled M:I:III can’t lean too hard on verbal wit, and so it quickly leaves Brassel behind to head out into the actionated field, where Ethan knows just what he’s about. He and the team manage multiple major set pieces, the most dazzling being the second (actually an escape from the first). After they invade a cavernous warehouse by any number of entries (under, over, through), kill a whole bunch of thugs and cretins, they get up into an extraordinary and so-stylish escape-and-chase scene, a couple of helicopters whizzing through windmills, with missiles flying, windmill blades crashing, bodies hanging from chopper doors.
This is also the scene where Davian’s utter nefariousness comes clear. He looks soft and a little nerdy, but he’s a brutal bully, not only fond of torturing IMF agents when he’s got them in front of him, but he’s also found a way to persist even when they’re out of sight, with an injection of a teeny explosive device into the brain (painfully, through the nasal cavity with a gun), to be triggered at excruciating moments.
The metaphor here is surely blunt, as this vicious technology insinuates any number of stealth attacks, against individuals or populations. The threat in global-trekking action has to be vast, but Abrams and his Alias co-writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Klutzman, also make Ethan’s rather conventional “personal” stakes (the wife in danger) a means to expose his own deception and brutality. Though he’s routinely celebrated for his righteous aggression, Ethan’s acceleration here is occasionally stunning. At a couple of points, he tries to scare and torture Davian into submission. Davian’s own delusions mean Ethan can’t possibly get what he wants by such methods: this much is apparent to Luther, who watches aghast during one such episode, before he actually tries to call Ethan off, even as Ethan. Just. Can’t. Stop.
While the movie tends to privilege Ethan’s perspective — his stunts, his goals, his urgency — when it cuts to these occasional other views, the effect can be jarring. Pursuing his own ends without regard to consequences makes Ethan heroic from one angle, and not a little barmy from another. Inside his own context unhinged from any sort of “reality,” Ethan’s excesses are admirable: he jumps off any building, drives any vehicle, shoots any weapon at any target. But when he risks those close to him, the stakes are different. The scariest possibility in M:I:III is not that Ethan will lose, but that he’ll win, and along the way, absorb his pretty little wife into his fearsome orbit.