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For a minute there, it looked like Mission: Impossible III would never get out of development hell.
Following the release of John Woo’s dove-filled Mission: Impossible II in 2000, Paramount and producer-star Tom Cruise struggled to find the right story and director for the third installment in their venerable franchise. From 2002 to ’04, directors David Fincher and Joe Carnahan came and went, as did casting attachments such as Scarlett Johannson and Kenneth Branagh as a Timothy McVeigh-type villain in Carnahan’s scenario.
But in July 2004, instead of self-destructing, Mission: Impossible III got back on track when it was announced that J.J. Abrams would make his feature directorial debut on the much-anticipated threequel. Abrams and Bad Robot’s involvement would reframe what a Mission: Impossible movie could be, and establish a tone and narrative template that made the franchise what it is today. Without it, there would be no Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation or Fallout — three of the genre’s greatest films. There are two more installments on the way. Yet, despite the seismic impact Mission: Impossible III had on the film series, the movie — which celebrates its 15th anniversary today — is often met with indifference by fans.
Despite the bumpy road to getting the greenlight, by all accounts, the production of Abrams’ film is largely considered to be the smoothest of all the Missions. It all started in 2004, with Cruise bingeing Abrams’ character-driven, ABC spy drama, Alias, which led to him bringing a similar character-first approach to Ethan Hunt’s spy exploits, which would be significantly more grounded after Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2.
Instead of jousting motorcycles and excessive gun-fu battles that gave the first Mission sequel almost an air of self-parody, Abrams and his fellow Alias and Mission writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci took a more intimate approach with IMF’s veteran agent. They decided to peel back the curtain on who Ethan is off the field, give him a fiancee, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), and infuse the blockbuster with the franchise’s biggest emotional stakes at the time — as Ethan’s work as a spy would directly threaten the one person he wants to share his life with.
Ethan’s most personal mission puts him on a violent collision course with the franchise’s most unsettling (and punchable) villain, Owen Davian (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). Prior to Ethan encountering Davian, our hero is several years removed from field service and celebrating his engagement to Julia in their cozy suburban home in Virginia, a home modeled after Abrams’. Soon, Ethan accepts a mission to rescue his former mentee, Agent Farris (Keri Russell), before an explosive charge that Davian implanted in her head can kill her. After a harrowing escape via helicopter, Ethan tragically fails to save Farris’ life. But he and his team — which includes Maggie Q, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Mission staple Ving Rhames — must go after Davian and stop him before he can unleash a mysterious doomsday MacGuffin called the Rabbit’s Foot. Several double-crosses and mask-pulls ensue, along with the iconic shot of Ethan slamming into the side of a Dodge Stratus.
Mission: Impossible III keeps the action firmly rooted in character, just like Abrams did with Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) on Alias. This welcome approach to Ethan and his relationship with Julia makes Mission: Impossible III the most romantic entry in the franchise. This marks a dramatic shift from the Ethan Hunt in Woo’s film; instead of a leather-jacketed, slo-mo walking cipher, Ethan was now a vulnerable (he cries!), everyday hero who just happens to find himself as the only thing standing between us and the end of the world.
This take on Ethan plays closer to Cruise’s strengths as an actor as well, with his boundless charisma bouncing off the screen and making it hard for audiences not to root for him. By playing everything at human height, Mission: Impossible III makes it so that every panicked breath Ethan takes (and there are a lot) or victory he earns, they feel like one of our own.
And while Abrams’ visual style doesn’t always take full advantage of the anamorphic scope newly afforded him, he more than makes up for it with an effortless, kinetic approach to the action scenes — especially the riveting heist set at the Vatican. The “fun” tone of the set pieces and the team’s interaction therein, which would become a mainstay in Ghost Protocol, were essentially Beta tested here.
And as great as Abrams and his team are at executing the edge-of-your-seat tension and puzzle plotting audiences love in spy thrillers like this, they are even better at making the quieter, more emotional beats land. Especially in the scenes between Ethan and Julia, like the one where a rooftop rendezvous with Julia forces Ethan into an internal tug-of-war of how much of his secret life to tell her before all of it puts her in harm’s way. Mission: Impossible III is more concerned with these quieter moments than the explosions surrounding them. This level of emotional storytelling would, to varying degrees, thread its way through subsequent Missions, as would the emphasis on finding new and inventive ways to subvert expectations and make each of Ethan’s missions increasingly, er, impossible.
The cost of living a public life in service of secretly saving lives is a theme Abrams dined out on during his Alias days, and it more than services him and his star here on the big screen. The constant, nail-biting tension between Ethan’s personal life and his professional one allows for some truly inventive fun at the movies.
The smaller approach Mission: Impossible III took continues to pay off. Even though it opened below expectations at the box office when it kicked off the summer of 2006, Abrams’ work lit the fuse on the continued success and longevity the franchise has today. It’s ironic that the movie some fans say “tarnished the brand” is actually the film that saved it.
Mission: Impossible used its third chapter as a foundation to realign the series and its main character. By finding a more personal way into the character 15 years ago, Abrams and his team made it possible for the resilient franchise to find a new longevity, and for the character of Ethan Hunt to extend his shelf life in ways that resonate with audiences long after the credits roll.
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