Mike Davies reviews Tom Cruise's latest...
MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE III * * * *
Cert 12A 125 mins
Call me a cynic, but you have to wonder whether it's the studios running scared of piracy or some sort of press paranoia on the part of Thomas Cruise Mapother that meant there were no regional screenings of this prior to yesterday's release day, and only two official London previews, both this week.
A similar scenario played out with his last summer blockbuster, War Of The Worlds; an unusual situation since director Steven Spielberg is normally happy to let the press see his movies.
Maybe our Tom is beginning to suspect his lustre isn't quite as sparkly as it once was.
After all, wasn't he acted off screen by Dakota Fanning in WotW? But no, think of Collateral. If he ever really deserved an Oscar nomination it was for that.
But then that pushed him as an actor, here he's along for the franchise ride.
And he probably shouldn't take too many second looks at any scene where he appears alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman playing it without a hint of ham as Owen Davian, the film's genuinely chilling arms dealing villain.
Where you can almost hear Cruise's face emoting, Hoffman simply turns the blood to ice with a flicker of a sadistic smile. If only there were more of him in the movie.
Of course, Hoffman has the Oscar while Tom's only ever been an also ran. And while it's understandable to be eclipsed by Laurence Fish-burne as the IMF boss, to have Simon Pegg as the comic relief resident techno nerd stealing scenes is another matter entirely.
Give him his due though, when it gets to the popcorn crunching action, Cruise pumps up to twice his height, throwing himself around the set as explosions go off left, right and centre, racing through Shanghai's alleyways like an Olympic sprinter and crashing through the nearest a vailable window at every opportunity.
But (savvily picked by Cruise) the real star here is director and cowriter JJ Abrams, the man who gave the world Alias and Lost. Clearly a fan of Marvel comics and the way they gave their superheroes personal problems, one of his two main objectives was to show Hunt away from the day job, falling in love and (shades of Spider-Man) finding the woman in his life endangered by the revenge-seeking bad guy. In practice the domestic scenes are the weakest but the idea still holds up.
The other aim was to return to the team-oriented set up of the original series. So, while Hunt gets to grandstand in a couple of set-pieces (and an attack on a bridge is sensational) and has the showdown to himself, there's room for Ving Rhames, Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers to flex action muscles and swap witty banter as his fellow agents.
Did I forget to mention the plot? OK, Ethan Hunt is brought back into the field by operations boss (Billy Crudup) to rescue his abducted protege (Keri Russell).
When that goes pear-shaped Hunt sets up a rogue mission, determined to bring down her killer (Hoffman), only for that too to, quite literally, blow up in his face, putting his unsuspecting new wife (Michelle Monaghan) in mortal peril.
Berlin, the Vatican, Shanghai, they're all left sweeping up the debris. Abrams certainly knows how to get your attention, providing a sequence with Hunt strapped help-lessly in a chair, pleading for his wife's life as Davian not only threatens to blow her brains out, but actually pulls the trigger.
No, that doesn't spoil things. That's the pre-credits sequence. You have to wait some 90 minutes to find out how it came to that.
Not only a fan of the TV series, Abrams is obviously a Hitchcock nut as well, providing a plot that relies entirely on a macguffin everyone refers to as the 'rabbit's foot' and which may or may not be an 'anti-God' bioweapon that can destroy the world.
And he does love his gadgets. The rubber face masks are back, along with brain bombs and all manner of doohickeys that let you leap tall buildings at a single bound, while the screenplay constantly throws in those "impossible" feats of derring-do.
It's unfortunate that it has to resort to the old traitor in the ranks cliche and the predictable false footings designed to point you in the wrong direction, but, a vast improvement on M:I II, it delivers what it says on the tin and then some more.
While the world waits to see how Bond is reinvented, the Bourne franchise remains the thinking cinemagoers spy movie of choice, but for anyone who wants big bangs and adrenaline rushes the Mission bell is ringing loud and clear.