Movie review: ‘Mission: Impossible III'

2½ stars (out of four)

"Mission: Impossible III" hasn't the kinks or the oddball Continental chic of the first "Mission: Impossible," but it's less pretentious and obsessively pretty than the second movie, the one with all the fireballs and slow-mo and John Woo-directed doves flying around.

The film doesn't go in for mere violence. According to the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board, it contains "frenetic" violence. Somehow the frenetic public persona of Tom Cruise, co-producer and star of this particular franchise, has negotiated an aggression niche unto itself.

"M:I III," which when you type it looks like some weird bar code, is directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, co-creator of such TV fantasies as "Felicity," "Alias" and "Lost." The story line finds covert agent Ethan Hunt in from the cold and working a day job, training Impossible Mission Force recruits. It's a double life nonetheless: As far as his lady love (Michelle Monaghan) knows, he's with the Department of Transportation.

The ruse is tested, sorely, when Hunt gets sucked back into the old hard-knock, bam-pow life, this time chasing a venal weapons and information dealer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) from Berlin to Rome to Shanghai. Ving Rhames returns as IMF hacker supreme Luther. Hunt's comrades, who look young enough to have just bopped off the set of "Felicity," include Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the driver and helicopter pilot and Keri Russell (who did, in fact, bop off the set of "Felicity") as an agent badly in need of rescue. The cast also features Hong Kong starlet Maggie Q as the one with the fewest lines and Laurence Fishburne and Billy Crudup trading tight-lipped glowers as Central Intelligence Agency wonks who may or may not be trustworthy.

The script by Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci offers a little bit of story, and it's actually trackable. The first, Brian De Palma-directed "Mission: Impossible" didn't make a lick of sense, but De Palma -- reportedly with a lot of interference from Cruise -- managed to deliver a half-cocked moneymaker with some old-school panache. Abrams, by contrast, is an industry commodity a megastar can trust, which is a mixed blessing. His style tends toward metallic efficiency and pace at any cost.

In some sequences, though, Abrams musters more, and better. The best of "M:I III" comes early, in a lengthy, scenic and smartly paced suspense sequence set in Vatican City. Hunt's trying to kidnap the weapons and techno-trader bad guy, and for a long while you're in the grip of actual suspense without a lot of brutality, as opposed to the hammering gunplay and sadistic reversals director Abrams, Cruise and company feel compelled to deliver. (You might call such bits "frenetic.")

Another smart idea: In this film, we learn precisely how those presto-change-o latex masks are manufactured, in a hurry, so that Cruise can pretend he's Hoffman. In the first two "Mission: Impossible" movies, characters executed the mask-peeling routine often enough to bore a professional mask salesman. It was time for a how-to; here, we get it. It was clever of the writers to step back and show how it's done -- it's preposterous, of course, but entertainingly preposterous.

Uneven but lively, the film suffers from many of the usual big-budget action movie drawbacks: Too many endings, too many machine guns and missile attacks, a wheezy James Bondian reliance on death-with-wisecracks. But the story's focus on Hunt and the missus actually pays off. And Cruise, whose smile hides a veiled threat behind each molar, is still up there sprinting like a maniac, still doing a lot of his own stunts -- at least the ones not defying the laws of physics.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'Mission: Impossible III'

Directed by J.J. Abrams; screenplay by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Abrams; cinematography by Dan Mindel; edited by Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon; production design by Scott Chambliss; music by Michael Giacchino; produced by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:06. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of frenetic violence and menace, disturbing images and some sensuality).

Ethan Hunt … Tom Cruise

Owen Davian … Philip Seymour Hoffman

Luther … Ving Rhames

Musgrave … Billy Crudup

Julia … Michelle Monaghan

Declan … Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Lindsey … Keri Russell

Zhen … Maggie Q

John Brassel … Laurence Fishburne

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