Dir: J.J. Abrams
Star: Tom Cruise, Michelle Monaghan, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames
This installment had a rather tortured path to the screen, going through both David Fincher and Joe Carnahan as directors, before being handed to feature rookie Abrams. Of course, he had plenty of experience with spy shenanigans on TV, and a sense he was recycling those tropes was my major criticism at the time (below). Now, with Alias so much dust in the wind, and as forgotten as Jennifer Garner’s career, that isn’t an issue. This has dated very well, we found, despite – or perhaps because – I couldn’t remember much about this on the way in, to be honest. It’s the one where Simon Pegg showed up, isn’t it? That was about my recollection. But after struggling to find itself in the first two entries, it feels like this is the entry where the franchise finally hit its stride.
The various elements come together to the form we now know, with a slew of blockbuster action set-pieces, interesting characters and a plot which hits the sweet spot between simplistic and unnecessarily complicated. It’s just a lot of fun. The viewer’s attention is grabbed immediately, with villain Owen Davian (Hoffman) appearing to shoot the wife of Ethan Hunt (Cruise), and we then flashback to see how we got there. Hunt has “retired” from active service, to be a trainer and is now engaged to Julia (Monaghan), who knows nothing about his job. When he goes back into the field to rescue an agent, it opens a can of worms, which leads Ethan to a quickie wedding.
Silly spy: has he never seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? That way always lies trouble. And so it proves here, with Davian making very specific threats against Julia after his capture, then escaping and working to deliver on them. This adds a personal edge to the very Macguffin-like “Rabbit’s Foot” everyone is chasing. Spoiler alert: we never do discover what it does, or why it’s such a threat. Though to be fair, it doesn’t matter much. You will be more than entertained by Hawke breaking into the Vatican, a hellacious firefight on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a Shanghai heist, and Cruise doing his weird running thing beside a Chinese river.
The supporting cast are good, including Film Blitz favorite Maggie Q as well as Pegg. Hoffman clearly relishes being able to get his teeth into a good, villainous role in the kind of blockbuster part usually reserved for British thespians in need of a new house. Abrams proves highly capable of expanding his vision to fill a movie screen, and justifies the studio’s confidence in handing him somewhere north of $150 million, then a record budget for a first-time feature director. You can’t claim the money isn’t on screen, and outside of a couple of digital effects that are a little bit of their time, this is as entertaining as any contemporary action film.
[May 2006] Abrams, creator of TV show Alias, must have laughed all the way to the bank. He gets much better production values, like actually going to Shanghai, rather than showing stock footage before cutting to an LA set [Though German windfarms look curiously like California…], and needn’t write a script, just take a discarded two-parter and replace “Sidney Bristow” with “Ethan Hunt”. That’s not so bad – we like Alias – but the structure, ideas and characters here are scarily familiar. Start with a dramatic moment, then flashback to the events before it? Check. Secret government agency, hunting those who supply weaponry to bad guys? Check. Boss you perhaps can’t trust? Check. Geeky tech guy who rambles on, in his own world? Check (here, played by Shaun of the Dead‘s Simon Pegg, so we enjoyed that).
If it’s not a contradiction, this is solidly fluffy: it’s summer entertainment, and is instantly forgettable, but is a pretty good time, as Hawke (Cruise) scurries from one perilous situation to another. However, as in War of the Worlds, there is no genuine sense of peril; as the biggest star on the planet, you know nothing terrible will really happen to him. Due to this, the same applies to the film’s most shocking moment, which my brain immediately rejected as fake. The supporting cast is solid: Hoffman is a good villain, just not around enough to make much impact. While they give Hawke a backstory, and a fiancee/wife (Monaghan), we get no real feel for them as a couple, and so emotional investment is slim, at best. Abrams handles the action well enough; he brings his horrible choppy editing with him, as well as way too much wobbly-cam, but there were enough “Ooh!” moments in there to keep us entertained. And that’s all we expected, or wanted. C+