It’s difficult to imagine a better corrective for the rap rock shit show that was Mission: Impossible 2 than the third installment that followed it a whopping six years later. Mission: Impossible 3 opens with a beyond terrifying Phillip Seymour Hoffman moving Tom Cruise’s super spy hero Ethan Hunt to tears while torturing him for information. This moment of intense vulnerability is a far cry from the second film, which was more or less a chance for Cruise to pose as Limp Bizkit-lovin’, motorbike-ridin’, late 90s badass while some slow motion doves flew around him & everything about him was so X-treme that even his sunglasses exploded. In Mission: Impossible 3, Ethan Hunt becomes a real person for the first time. He’s not Tom Cruise dressed up like a handsome super spy like in the first film or a irredeemable hard rock douchebag like in the second. He’s a vulnerable human being locking horns with a nightmare-inducing Hoffman, who knows how to exploit his weaknesses to get what he wants. Like when the fifth Fast & Furious film discovered its heart in Vin Diesel’s longwinded ramblings about “family”, Mission: Impossible 3 finally pushes the series into a sense of cohesion by reducing its protagonist from an action movie god to a regular dude with a dangerous job.
It’s clear how much Mission: Impossible 3 is trying to return to its roots & find itself as early as the opening credits, which bring back the original arrangement of the movie’s theme (as opposed to the rap rock version from John Woo’s film). M:I 3 even brought back Tom Cruise’s more handsome, less cringe-worthy hair from the first film that was absent in the second, a seemingly shallow detail that I promise makes all the difference. What ups the ante here, though, is a one-for-the-record-books performance from Hoffman that elevates the material just as much as Werner Herzog did for that other super soldier Cruise flick Jack Reacher. Hoffman is pure terror here & the movie knows how to put that element to great use. There’s even a scene where, thanks to face-ripping-offing technology allows for two Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s to engage in a fist fight in a bathroom. Two Hoffmans! I wasn’t even expecting one, so that was a genuine treat.
In addition to the strength of its antagonist & the newfound humanity of its central spy, M:I 3 also intensifies the sheer spectacle of its action sequences. The first film in the series was more or less three great action sequences & some dull filler while the second was a slow build that amounted to one really ludicrous third act. Mission: Impossible 3, on the other hand, features at least seven ludicrous action sequences by my count. There’s some ridiculous use of wind turbines, exploding bridges, and missile-dodging that makes this easily the most over-the-top entry of the series so far in terms of action. These escapist, popcorn movie moments clash very well with the more legitimately thrilling performance from Hoffman & some disturbing imagery like Cruise’s mortified face when his fiancé is in danger or a kinky, horse-shaped leather mask that is used to subdue him.
It’s pretty incredible that Mission: Impossible 3 was so adept at bringing the series back to life, when all signs pointed to it being a doomed project. Released soon after the Scientology-ridicule started troubling Cruise’s career after an especially memorable Oprah appearance, the movie went through two directors (one would’ve been David Fincher, which is almost too good to be true) before landing on JJ Abrams, who had never directed a feature film before. Abrams, perhaps confident due to his extensive work in television, succeeded at the very difficult task of not only pulling this series’ shit together, but also rescuing a troubled project already years in the making. It’s pretty incredible the quality & range of directors Cruise has hired as a producer to helm these films, but it’s even more incredible how much Abrams was able to hold his own in that arena, topping even Brian De Palma’s entry in the franchise by making the best Mission: Impossible film to date.
Side note: In addition to being the best so far, this film also featured the most Ving Rhames content in any Mission: Impossible film to date, which I assure you was not a coincidence.