Disclaimer: in general, I've had problems with the Mission:Impossible franchise. Why? Well, in essence it's a movie empire built on one image: that of a man flying towards the screen while a fire ball explodes behind him. That's not much to base a movie upon, let alone three. (And yeah, the image is repeated in MI:3, with Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt catapulted towards the camera while a missile blows up a truck behind him, on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge).
Now, once upon a time, Mission:Impossible was a television series. Created by Bruce Geller, it concerned a team of covert espionage agents who rarely used guns in their dedicated efforts to preserve national security. Instead, they achieved their aims in detailed, cleverly-conceived "cons," using agent expertise in psychology, acting (!), and the latest secret technology (including masks, etc.)
But, somewhere along the twisted road to the silver screen, the concept mutated, and Mission:Impossible became all about the glorification of one extraordinary man, Tom Cruise's agent, Ethan Hunt. The films didn't really feature teams (or psychology at all...), but rather expensive stunts. They became, in a word, American James Bond films, with Cruise fulfilling that role.
Oh man. Why do I even bother? Why do I keep complaining about re-imaginings like the Mission:Impossible franchise? Don't I get tired of it? Well, yeah I do. But I do it because I see an American populace settling for increasingly dumb entertainment, even in a smart genre like science fiction. We're so cowed and stupid, apparently, that we accept (and love!) the idea that people in another galaxy will share our fashion sense and slang (in the new Battlestar Galactica), and we'll accept blaring guns and fireballs instead of carefully-constructed plots and a team of agents in the Mission:Impossible movies. But, to quote Dirk Diggler, I'll keep trying if you keep trying. I'll keep complaining about dumbed-down re-imaginations no matter how tiresome I sound, cuz someone's gotta do it. Hey, I have a son now, and I want Joel to grow up in a world where the movies are smart; where the television captures his imagination.
When I was a kid, I was often glued to the tube watching Mission:Impossible. The series was short on spectacular action and dialogue, but brilliantly conceived in every way imaginable. Not every aspect of the story was directly explained, and the viewer had to put all the pieces of the "con" puzzle together for himself. The information wasn't spoon fed to the audience. This was especially rewarding at the end of each episode, when the bad guy would be hung out to dry (by his own petard...), and the IMF team - anonymous and secret - would simply drive away from the scene unnoticed in a non-descript van. How cool is that? They left no footprints. They just did their job, invisibly - and with no couch jumping - and moved on.
Somehow, I can't imagine Tom Cruise's character doing that. Because these movies are ALL ABOUT HIM.
But to be fair to Mission:Impossible 3, it does boast a more complex template than just exploding fireballs. And that template is...Alias. Yep, J.J. Abrams' canceled espionage series, formerly airing on ABC. For instance, Mission:Impossible 3 cow-tows to Alias's peculiar fetish for brutal interrogation and torture sequences with not one but two (count 'em!) such scenes. It also utilizes familiar locations (like Berlin and Shanghai) from the series, and most derivatively of all, adopts the Alias theme of an agent balancing his home life with his "business life." Why, the movie even opens with the common Alias conceit of opening an episode in media res, and then backtracking to explain how the main character got into the dangerous predicament.
So really, why didn't Abrams just make an Alias movie? I sort of prefer Jennifer Garner's character, anyway. But I shouldn't complain too much, because as derivative of Alias as MI:3 is, at least there's more going on than big explosions (see MI:2). Also, of all the Mission:Impossible films, this is the only production that actually features a team (meaning more than two guys...) pulling a con. To wit, there's a splendidly paced, shot and orchestrated sequence in the Vatican. For fifteen minutes, while this scene unfolds, the movie feels like a Mission:Impossible episode. And...I loved it. Whoo-hoo.
Otherwise, the movie is a bizarre series of dead ends. A Q-type agent at the IMF rattles on at length about a rogue molecule, a deadly technology called "the Anti-God." It plays absolutely no role in the film. At least no direct one. Then there's the McGuffin of the film, "the Rabbit's foot," which Ethan must recover. Maybe it's the Anti-God molecule, but the screenplay declines to share any information. That's right, you go two hours and six minutes and don't even find out what the rabbit's foot is. I'm all for ambiguous mysteries, but this just isn't playing fair. How would viewers have liked it if in Star Wars, Darth Vader talked the whole movie about the stolen Death Star plans, but no one ever told the audience what the Death Star was?
Here's the difference between TV show and this movie. On the TV program, the characters didn't stop to explain what they were doing, but we understood what the mission was and there was a "light bulb" moment as the mission came together in the finale. In this movie, Tom Cruise goes after an object that is vital...but we never know what it is, why it's important, what it means, or what it could do. He accomplishes the mission...but it means...nothing. See the difference?
I think someone was trying too hard to be clever here...
Like X3: The Last Stand, I can write with authority that the film is fast-paced and the explosions are impressive. But, really, there's nothing else happening. Also, I must note that Lalo Schifrin's Mission:Impossible theme song is so good, so riveting, so goose-pimple inducing that J.J. Abrams could have filmed Tom Cruise walking his dog, added the music, and the movie would have still felt exciting and vibrant.
The theme song, I hasten to add, was composed forty years ago.