The best way to spoil a movie is to watch a TV drama with the same material the night before. So watching Threat Matrix on Thursday (it's on after Scrubs) may have jaundiced my opinion of Mission Impossible 3. Then again, one can only spin so much from the worn threads of spy gadgets, undercover agents and evil European arms-dealers.
Numerous Spoiler Warnings
The first question to ask when making a movie is whether you want the audience to take it seriously. If the answer is 'yes', then you should avoid scenes with special agents wise-cracking and discussing their engagement plans en mision. Or helicopers flying between the blades of wind turbines while the hero performs defibrillation on board. Or people sticking nitroglycerin bombs up other people's noses for no reason, other than 'because we can, and we're sadistic bastards.'
MI3 has all these things and still expects us to suspend our well-paid-for disbelief. How a film with scenes of torture and executions got a PG-13 rating I'll never know, but it works hard to achieve a grim realism. Villain (#1) talks up a DaVinciCode-style conspiracy - "you have no idea what you're dealing with, do you?" - that involves a doomsday weapon innocuously called the 'Rabbit's Foot'. Villain (#2) provides the now-mandatory reference to contemporary politics, through a half-boiled scheme to sell the Rabbit's Foot to Middle Eastern jihadists and then send in the US military to clean up: "democracy wins".
The material's stale, but I might still have cared had it led somewhere. Intead it's been cobbled into a circular plot with more leaks than a boatfull of asylum seekers. If Davian's so confident about the Rabbit's Foot, why does he need Hunt to steal it? If Musgrave wants it, why didn't he just send Hunt? What's the point of having faux-Julia shot after Hunt provides the Rabbit's Foot? For that matter what's the point of any of this, seeing as we're never told where the Rabbit's Foot comes from or even what it is?
Denied a coherent story, the film's left to hang the explosions and gadgetry on a parade of undeveloped characters. Phillip Seymour Hoffman doesn't quite pull off the transition from Capote to sadistic, English-accented criminal mastermind. Billy Crudup might have made an adequate backup villain had he revealed himself before the last 15 minutes of the film, and been given one more scene before losing a pistol duel with Hunt's gun-innocent wife. Only the acid-tongued Laurence Fishburne stirs some interest, until we find out that he's not the bad guy after all.
None of this need disappoint if you paid to see Tom Cruise running, driving or falling for half the movie, preferably against exotic backdrops (German windfarms, the Vatican, Shanghai). Agent Farris may need an adrenalin shot to get her going, but not Ethan Hunt, who goes from blasting predator drones out of the sky with an assault rifle to being zapped with a nerve-agent to breaking out of IMF headquarters with a penknife, without so much as a catnap. This superhuman resilience doesn't leave Cruise many opportunities to act. Among these precious moments, the more convincing ones are not those with Julia but Hunt's flashbacks about Farris, and his internal conflict over having sent a young agent to her death. But even this gets submerged in the pointlessness of the whole exercise.
MI3 has the rush and the effects; it just lacks creativity, a convincing story or characters that the audience cares about. I enjoyed the fact that Hunt's agency is called the 'IMF' (Impossible Missions Force) and the bit where Hunt's crew confound ex-PLA contractors with a tennis-ball machine. Maybe if I hadn't been up till 1:00am that morning watching another show about American secret agents saving the world, I would have been more charitable.
Or maybe not.