Philip Seymour Hoffman is a great actor, and here's the proof: Mission: Impossible III is an interesting movie when he's onscreen.

Hoffman plays Owen Davian, who is evil. Davian wants to take control of the "Rabbit's Foot" a MacGuffin of biohazardous origin. Standing in his way is Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise, the media darling of the modern age. It seems clear that the underwhelming box of returns for M:I:III (ew) this past weekend is largely due to the profound degree to which Cruise has alienated the entire American filmgoing audience, but it is not his fault that the film is bad (poor timing though, in that the film is largely concerned with Ethan's new marriage. Poor Katie). It was always going to be bad. A sequel to Magnolia might perhaps not have been bad. But there will likely never be a good Mission: Impossible film, although M:I:III (ugh) is several degrees better than its predecessors.

In this film, Cruise travels the world and moves through exciting setpieces. For a change, he does so in the framework of a coherent plot: evil arms smuggler steals Cruise's new wife (Michelle Monaghan) and blackmails Cruise across the globe until the showdown in a rundown Shanghai neighborhood. There's very little twisting and turning, except for a rather transparent "shock" involving the current traitor at Cruise's base of operations. Happily little time is spent on the plot, which is of course nothing more than a vehicle for set pieces.

Unfortunately, those set pieces are pretty standard fare. I place all of the blame on director/co-writer J.J. Abrams, who proved with Alias and Lost that he can make extremely thrilling television. The problem is that he proves exactly the same thing in M:I:III (yuck). Long story short, this is a big-budget summer movie directed by a TV veteran. And the choices that make perfect sense on a television set - lots of closeups, show the action in closely-framed beats, scenes about three minutes long - are deadly for a movie, especially an action movie. I feel that the stunts are quite extraordinary, in some ways, but they haven't been filmed to showcase it. This is, without question, the most claustrophobic action movie I have ever seen.

And then there's the whole other issue of trying to pick out which scenes were practical effects and which were of the film's most bravura moments, Hunt jumping from skyscraper to skyscraper, was ruined when I caught myself looking for the transition from CGI Cruise to Real (okay, "Real") Cruise.

But still: Hoffman. He plays the role of Chief Villain and Torturer with a sort of dull detachment that I think speaks to his own boredom with the film ("Don't put in front of the camera again J.J., I just sat down with a bagel!"). Even so, it works in that whole banality-of-evil way. The scene that's been front-and-center in every trailer ("Do you have a wife? A girlfriend? Whoever she is, I'm gonna find her. I'm gonna hurt her") turns out to open the film, and it's really a well-done bit. There's something monstrous in Devian's (that is, Hoffman's) evident boredom, that works infinitely better than mustache-twirling histrionics in the same place (i.e. every Bond villain ever). Far be it from me to complain that M:I:III (christ) is too short, but I'd really have liked several more Devian scenes. In fact, I would have liked them in place of all of the Cruise scenes.

Also, it's always good to hear Lalo Schifrin's theme in a theater. Mustn't forget to give it a point for that.

Reviews in this series
Mission: Impossible (De Palma, 1996)
Mission: Impossible II (Woo, 2000)
Mission: Impossible III (Abrams, 2006)
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Bird, 2011)
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (McQuarrie, 2015)
Mission: Impossible - Fallout (McQuarrie, 2018)