Release Date: May 5, 2006
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Action
Run Time: 126 min.
Director: J.J. Abrams
Actors: Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Keri Russell, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Laurence Fishburne, Billy Crudup, Michelle Monaghan, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q

“Mission: Impossible 3” director J.J. Abrams, in interviews promoting the latest entry in the “Mission Impossible” franchise, has said that he wanted the third film’s stunts to serve the storyline, rather than the other way around. By that criterion, “M:I3” must be considered a failure. But if “M:I3,” like its two predecessors, is evaluated primarily as a stunt-driven spectacle where plot is largely incidental, the film fills the bill for exciting summer entertainment.

Whether moviegoers want to see one more film that spares no expense in trying to outdo its forerunners comes down to a cold calculation: Do a few big set-piece scenes, plus a dose of underdeveloped romance, equal a worthwhile summer movie, or will one more less-than-satisfying script, and Tom Cruise’s public antics, turn viewers against the franchise?

Tom Cruise once again gives a satisfying star performance as Ethan Hunt, an IMF team leader assisted once again by Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and two additional members (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q). Director Abrams wastes no time building viewer empathy for Ethan or his romantic interest, Julia, thrusting the audience into a climactic sequence before cutting away to tell the story from the beginning. Abram’s calculation is a mistake. Viewers will have a built-in empathy for Ethan by this third film in the series, but the endangered woman is a mystery to us. We care for her because, we quickly realize, Ethan cares for her, but the rapid escalation of torture and violence in this scene is so horrifying some viewers may be tempted to flee the theater, if only until the sequence ends.

Following the startling conclusion of the first sequence, we’re taken to an earlier scene that serves to establish Ethan’s relationship with Julia. We learn that the two are engaged to be married, and that, crucially, Ethan can read lips—the odd sort of character trait certain to crop up again later in the film, at a critical moment.

Called into service once more by the IMF, Ethan leads his team in a rescue mission involving one of Ethan’s protégés, who has disappeared after infiltrating the inner ring of Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a shadowy international arms dealer. Herky-jerky camera movement substitutes for momentum during a first-of-its-kind helicopter chase through a wind farm, with the requisite explosions and mechanical destruction.

When things take an unexpected turn for the worse, Ethan commits to hunting down Davian. “You have to trust me,” he tells Julia, after explaining that he won’t be by her side for a few days. “I trust you,” she replies—and it’s off to the altar for an official “I do” before Ethan’s departure.

Ethan’s efforts to prevent Davian from obtaining the “rabbit’s foot”—an unknown object that, Ethan is told, will be used by Davian for nefarious purposes—involve increasingly elaborate break-ins, first at the Vatican and then in a tightly guarded office complex in Shanghai (“makes Langley look like child’s play” says Rhames, referring to the team’s penetration of CIA headquarters in the first “Mission Impossible”).

Those death-defying scenes—absurd but acceptably so in the “MI” world—deliver the expected thrills. And yet, Abrams brings no distinctive visual style to the series, unlike Brian De Palma and John Woo, who helmed the first two entries, respectively. The best Abrams can do is to mimic Woo’s slow-motion gun ballets.