Mission: Impossible III

In theaters. 

If Mission: Impossible III had come out two years ago, before couch jumping entered the national lexicon, would it have been a different movie? Would I still have rolled my eyes when Tom Cruise screwed up his face in faux determination? Would the opening-night audience with which I saw the flick still have tittered when he ostentatiously proclaimed his love for a naive, girlish brunette? Would the movie still have felt slick but overwhelmingly silly, the story not of a superspy but of a superstar playacting at espionage?

Cruise’s primary strength as an actor has always been his charisma, and his shenanigans of late have damaged that critical attribute. If he fails to convince us of his sincerity and sanity when he’s just being himself, how can he hope to do so when he’s playing characters on the big screen?

It’s not even a matter of more of us disliking him (though that doesn’t help); it’s a matter of more of us disbelieving him. More than ever, Cruise seems false, alien and delusional. His broad, toothy grin in Mission: Impossible III no longer recalls the goofball charm of him lip-syncing in his underwear. It reminds us of his manic exclamations of love in between leaps from Oprah’s couch. His intense action-star gaze connotes not top-gun swagger but vehement censure of Matt Lauer. (“You’re glib, Matt. You’re glib.”)

I don’t know whether he’s lost his ability to present himself as a charming human being or whether we’ve lost our ability to perceive him as such, but the end result is the same: Cruise is the weakest member of the M:i:III cast. He’s as enthusiastic and extroverted as ever, but nothing about his performance feels real, even in the unreal context of M:i:III.

In this, the third entry of the Impossible franchise, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is pulled out of retirement to accept one more mission: rescuing his protégé from the clutches of an evil international arms broker (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Intrigue within the intelligence community endangers his crack team of multilingual, tech-savvy masters of disguise … and eventually his sweet, sheltered fiancé in a climactic scene revealed to us in a brief prologue.

As usual, Mission: Impossible is a showcase for impossible gadgets, impossible stunts, and impossible latex masks that grant actors the opportunity to play each other. Hoffman, for example, plays Cruise better than Cruise himself, and he does a damn good job of playing the villain as well. Other actors would have taken the opportunity to chew through the scenery (and that would have been fun, too), but Hoffman gives a chillingly tamped-down performance, proving once again that a ruthless professional is much more frightening than a rabid psycho.

Those playing Hunt’s colleagues at the Impossible Mission Force don’t have much to do, but they do what they can with aplomb. Back at mission headquarters, Laurence Fishburne relishes some of the best lines in the movie. As a language geek, I couldn’t help but grin when he barked, “Don’t interrupt me when I’m asking rhetorical questions!” Sadly, Fishburne doesn’t share much screen time with the gruff Ving Rhames, who also provides a welcome antidote to Cruise’s inescapable pluck. A Fishburne-Rhames tag team might actually have cut Cruise to size. Jonathan Rhys Meyers shines in an amusing undercover scene, the one moment when he’s not stuck spouting technical jargon and operating moving vehicles, and Maggie Q, cast as eye candy, models her flashy red dress with grace and a hint of humor. Her one emotive scene, recalling the wayward cat of her childhood, seems weirdly out of place, but that’s the director’s and screenwriters’ fault, not hers.

Indeed, Cruise is not entirely to blame for M:i:III’s erratic rhythm and deflated confusion. The foreshadowed prologue serves more as an unwanted spoiler than a tension ratchet. The editing of some of the action sequences is incomprehensible, and truly unfortunate framing in one would-be affecting scene creates a sort of visual double entendre that provoked widespread laughter in the theater I attended. Worst of all, the final heist happens entirely off-screen, and the generic fistfight we get instead is a poor excuse for a finale. I’ve never watched either Alias or Lost, the two hit TV shows director J.J. Abrams created, but his choices in M:i:III make me wonder what all the fuss is about.

It’s not that I hated M:i:III. It was diverting enough, and the non-Cruise cast entertained me admirably. But the movie’s best sequence — the Rome caper — is over in the first hour (not coincidentally, Hoffman gets most of his screen time then), and after that, the story loses momentum. At one time, Cruise might have been able to sustain my interest despite that, but those days are gone. We’re left with the rather pathetic spectacle of someone who can’t accomplish the simple mission of convincingly portraying a human being.