The mission was impossible: top the original. And JJ Abrams and company almost succeeded. JJ Abrams is the 21st century king of sci-fi/fantasy rejuvenation, reinvigorating franchises such as Mission Impossible, Star Trek, and Star Wars. (I’m not a huge fan of The Force Awakens, but in 2015, I certainly thought it seemed to resurrect Star Wars from its carbon-frozen staleness).
The best Mission Impossible movies center around Tom Cruise pretending to be Ethan Hunt while having to steal a thing in exchange for another thing or person. Essentially, the magic is in blending heists, ticking clocks, and spy games with a healthy dose of action sequences, anchored by Tom Cruise running and jumping. Although, I don’t especially care for the close-ups and shaky cams employed by JJ Abrams in his action scenes.
Of the six Mission Impossible movies so far, the two best are the original and number three. They have the most cohesive stories. And they also attempt to push forward the development of the Tom Cruise character. The original movie obviously accomplishes this by simply existing. And the third entry in the franchise does this rather directly via the introduction of the Julia character.
Mission Impossible 3 works because of two elements: the MacGuffin and the villain. Rabbit’s foot is an all-time great name for a plot device. It’s mysterious, yet easily transportable. It’s easy to pronounce and memorable. And most importantly for a Mission Impossible MacGuffin, it sounds fun to steal. I don’t remember what the plot of M:I:2 is…or Ghost Protocol, or Rogue Nation, or Fallout. But I do remember that people want the rabbit’s foot from M:I:3 and the NOC list (whatever that is) from the first Mission Impossible. At least those two entries aren’t afraid to embrace MacGuffins.
Secondly, M:I:3 has Philip Seymour Hoffman portraying the best villain in the entire series. He’s menacing and intimidating. He’s also a wonderful character actor who gets to showcase his amazing range in the Vatican bathroom sequence when he (as played by Tom Cruise’s character) waves off his bodyguard. Seriously, without saying a word, he nails Tom Cruise’s style of kineticism.
The biggest missteps in M:I:3 that prevent it from knocking off the original at the top of the Paramountain are the story elements related to the Keri Russell, Maggie Q, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers characters and the obviousness of the necessary traitor reveal.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers is completely forgettable in the movie. Maggie Q has relatively nothing to do. And the Keri Russell piece is bizarre. I like the idea of her character as a vehicle to make M:I:3 more personal for the Tom Cruise character. But the execution is baffling. She’s supposed to be the opposite end of the tug-of-war with the Julia character. She’s meant to be one of two engines of motivation for Tom Cruise, yet I simply don’t care about her character.
However, there is a fix. Move the montage of Tom Cruise training Keri Russell after the opening credits sequence, but before the rescue operation. Now, I understand why Tom Cruise cares so much about coming out of retirement and endangering his family in order to rescue her. Now when she dies, it’s meaningful. And the Tom Cruise character arc comes full circle from the original. He’s now Keri Russell’s mentor rather than Jon Voight’s student. Now the impossible mission to retrieve the rabbit’s foot and stop Philip Seymour Hoffman is tainted by a quest for revenge. And that makes the running all the more exciting.