- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

“Mission: Impossible III” opens today with a two-strike count. For starters, can anyone remember much about the first two installments or their convoluted story lines? Second, unlike most sequels, we have nothing invested in hero Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise’s superspy alter ego. He’s a cipher of the first order, an excuse to let Mr. Cruise try every stunt his handlers will allow.

Turns out J.J. Abrams of “Lost” fame is a great two-strike hitter.

Mr. Abrams, who directed and co-wrote the latest “Mission,” invests the faltering franchise with wit, bold action and intelligence.

It’s not Shakespeare, mind you. “Mission: Impossible III” is first and foremost a popcorn movie. It’s just not an insulting one, and when the plausibility alarms start to clang, we’re too engaged to care.

“Mission” opens with a contented Ethan announcing his engagement to longtime steady Julia (Michelle Monaghan from “North Country”). The secret agent has taken a desk job teaching agents for IMF (Impossible Mission Force), a move that gave him the freedom to finally pursue a normal life.

That life is threatened when one of his star students goes missing. Ethan reluctantly steps back into the field to find her, aided by a trio of agents (Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q).

They find their woman (Keri Russell) but discover she was swiped by an arms dealer named Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman, brilliant as ever) who’s about to strike a big deal involving a foreign power.

It’s up to IMF, led by Laurence Fishburne in a small but superlative role, to stop Owen.

Ethan can’t resist the assignment, but his newfound love makes him vulnerable to Owen’s minions — a fact displayed in the thrilling first scene.

The rest is pure “Mission: Improbable,” as Ethan and company invade the Vatican and a fortresslike building in Shanghai.

Mr. Abrams doesn’t reinvent the action movie. He simply knows all the beats and gets them more or less right. Let’s start with the music, which begins with the signature “dum dum da-dum dum dum” theme and segues into Michael Giacchino’s bracing score.

The action sequences, which make the film’s trailer such a rush, feature a seamless blend of shaky camerawork and establishing shots. An aerial assault set atop a bridge is just one of several showstoppers that let Mr. Cruise run, jump and absorb an enormous amount of punishment.

Mr. Cruise channels all his furious energies into the role, not so much a performance as an endurance competition.

Finally, every “Mission” member is vital to the story, and even though we’d love to see more of Mr. Meyers’ character, he’s on-screen long enough to leave a mark.

Mr. Abrams specializes in nailing the small details that give the characters surprising depth. Ethan tells his girlfriend he works in traffic control. Later, when an IMF worker knocks over some boxes, a bunch of Department of Transportation fliers spill to the floor.

It’s only a second of screen time, but it speaks volumes of the wit coursing through the film.

It may be “Impossible” for viewers to forget Mr. Cruise’s public antics, but for two hours they’ll remember why he makes such an impressive action hero.

***

TITLE: “Mission: Impossible III”

RATING: PG-13 (Action film violence, disturbing imagery and some sensuality)

CREDITS: Directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams. Screenplay by Mr. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. Original music by Michael Giacchino.

RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes

WEB SITE: www.missionimpossible.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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