'Mission: Impossible III' Brought Tom Cruise Into The Chaotic World Of J.J. Abrams

(Welcome to Man on a Mission, a monthly series where we revisit the films of the Mission: Impossible franchise as we sprint toward the release of the seventh film.)Tom Cruise needed to change the subject. One of the biggest movie stars in the world, he had recently become vastly more well-known less for his films than for his public statements on psychology and Scientology, the latter of which has counted him as one of its most devoted and famous followers for decades. Cruise's public life had become perversely fascinating in the early 2000s: after divorcing Nicole Kidman, he began a relationship with the younger actress Katie Holmes, and his part of the War of the Worlds press tour in 2005 was marred by his attacks on actress Brooke Shields and her comments on Scientology.

So Tom Cruise needed to reverse course. Enter the third, long-in-development entry of the Mission: Impossible series, which began the slow, but careful, slightly meta-exploration of how Ethan Hunt...is kind of crazy.

As mentioned in last month's column, the conventional wisdom may be that Mission: Impossible 2 is the weakest entry in the series creatively, but it was a massive enough hit in the summer of 2000 that making a third entry was all but guaranteed. As had been the case with the shift between the first and second films, there was no expectation (or intent) for the prior film's director to return. Instead of John Woo, Cruise was working first with David Fincher on directing a third entry, announced just a couple weeks after the release of Fincher's Panic Room. When that unfortunately fell through, Cruise worked with Joe Carnahan for over a year on a potential third film, going as far as getting actors like Kenneth Branagh, Scarlett Johansson, and Carrie-Anne Moss involved. (Cruise and Carnahan already had something of a working relationship, with the star producing Carnahan's gritty crime thriller Narc in 2002.)

But all those deals fell apart over time, and the sequel landed in the lap of an untested filmmaker. The new director was a debut feature filmmaker and yet, in a twist of fate befitting the story of Ethan Hunt, he's arguably as distinctive an auteur (for good or ill) as Brian De Palma or John Woo. And it's all thanks to Tom Cruise binge-watching a network TV show on his downtime.

The Rabbit's Foot

Yes, if it wasn't for the ABC action drama Alias, we might not have J.J. Abrams' Mission: Impossible III. After he binged the first two seasons of the drama that asked "What if Keri Russell's Felicity, but as an international spy on the side?", Cruise called up Abrams and got him and two of his Alias writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, to team up on a new script that would send Ethan Hunt on an entirely new mission: a mission to achieve domesticity. The premise of M:I III is that Ethan has retired from field work and is training a new crop of agents for the Impossible Mission Force. But when one of his proteges (played, naturally, by Russell herself) gets captured by mysterious forces, Ethan is lured back into the field by an old friend (Billy Crudup), all while trying to convince his demure and kind fiancee (Michelle Monaghan) that his life, and he, are perfectly normal.

Watching Tom Cruise try to be normal is distinctively hilarious, because Tom Cruise and normal are two concepts that do not, and flatly cannot, go together. Early in the film at their engagement party, we see Monaghan's character, Julia, explaining to a couple friends how she and Ethan met, only for him to correct her on the location...while he's standing 50 feet away at a crowded party. Everyone mostly laughs it off, but the audience knows what Ethan does too: he's bad at being normal. When Sydney (Jennifer Garner) tried her able best to hide the truth that she was a spy on Alias, it led to believable confusion, because Sydney seemed normal enough. Ethan's success in hiding his truth is the intense passion with which he describes his phony job as a traffic-pattern researcher.

Thankfully, Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman waste little time in bringing Ethan back into the IMF field and fold, as he unhesitatingly responds to the call for help from his protege Lindsay. After getting together a team (played by Maggie Q, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and, of course, Ving Rhames), Ethan retrieves Lindsay only to be horrified to watch her die in his arms after she complains of an intense headache – brought on by an explosive charge placed in her head. Ethan, now bent on figuring out why someone would kill her, learns of arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his intent on retrieving a mysterious device called the Rabbit's Foot, this film's murderous MacGuffin.

Invisible Man

With 15 years of hindsight since both the release of Mission: Impossible III and the concluding season of Alias, it's all the more remarkable to consider exactly how much J.J. Abrams' debut film feels like a feature-length offshoot of the TV show whose existence led to him getting the feature job. Though the IMF is a less underhanded agency than SD-6 ever was, the similarities in style and storytelling abound. Ethan's forced to navigate the IMF as something closer to a suspicious contractor, as he once again has to doubt the allegiances of people like the current IMF director Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), similar to the shifting allegiances of just about every character who wasn't Syd on Alias. And although the character has morphed and changed over time, the goofy techie Benji, played by Simon Pegg, calls to mind the equally comic-relief geeky Marshall (Kevin Wiseman) from Alias.

And of course, there's the predilection that Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman have for an in medias res opening, as we're inserted into a suspenseful moment near the end of the overall story at the start, before leaping back to the true beginning. That creative tactic is both this film's best and worst impulse. The film begins with Ethan strapped to a chair in a grimy doctor's room, waking up after having been knocked out and shocked to see Julia bound and gagged in front of him. That's the doing of Davian, who calmly tells Ethan he has 10 seconds to reveal the location of the Rabbit's Foot, or Julia will be murdered. As he counts to ten, Ethan runs the gamut from genuine confusion – as we'll learn later, he believes he truly has already delivered the Rabbit's Foot to Davian – to bargaining to anger and eventually to emotional pleading. And it doesn't matter, because Davian shoots Julia anyway.

This is unquestionably the best scene in Mission: Impossible III, in no small part because six films into the franchise, Hoffman remains pretty much the best villain of the series. Though the film stretches credulity a bit in implying that Davian is a physical match for Hunt in a climactic hand-to-hand fight, he's as serious a match for Ethan mentally. It's an effectively jarring opening for the film – we've seen Ethan Hunt get worked up before, but he's teary-eyed by the time the opening credits kick in.

Yet the problem with almost every in medias res opening (and especially those Abrams has employed) is that the ensuing 90 minutes are the exact opposite of suspenseful. Whatever else happens to Ethan Hunt and his fiancee (and eventually wife), we know they and Owen Davian will end up in that hospital room. (Once the story returns to this scene, we learn that Davian pulled a switcheroo: an assistant of his has been bound and gagged, with an IMF-like mask of Julia placed over her head. But we only learn that after she's been shot.)

Running For His Life

15 years after he began directing feature films, it's fascinating to watch J.J. Abrams' direction of Mission: Impossible III and see a filmmaker seemingly less inspired by Steven Spielberg than by Michael Bay. Abrams has since taken on the mantle of directing revivals of major science-fiction franchises with Star Trek and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and his 2011 film Super 8 is as shameless an homage to Spielberg's 80s-era films with or without Spielberg's production company behind the film. But the jittery filmmaking in both III and Star Trek reflects an impatient director who's more comfortable creating and depicting chaos than something truly clear and easy to visually grasp.

Abrams and his cinematographer, Dan Mindel, are so intent on an action-movie aesthetic that's borderline incomprehensible that the most standout moment stands out precisely because Abrams doesn't cut away from the action for a few seconds. After the chronology catches up to the in medias res opening, and Ethan realizes that Julia is alive and well (at least, well enough), he convinces the frantic Benji via cell phone to guide him to his wife's location. After climbing on the rooftops of Shanghai, Ethan is told to just go straight for a good mile or so. And so, for just over 20 seconds, we get to watch Tom Cruise run like his life depends on it, with the camera moving at the exact same pace.

Forgive the use of a now-overused phrase, but Tom Cruise running is pure cinema. There is something weirdly hypnotic about seeing his already rigid body in motion, as if an invisible puppeteer is yanking at his arms and legs in perfect synchronization. Mission: Impossible III isn't the first time a director caught the strangely compelling sight of Cruise running, but for as much as J.J. Abrams cuts the figure of an impatient filmmaker raised on MTV-style music-video editing and choreography, he knows exactly when to hold a shot. If the in medias res opening is the best part of the film, the sight of Cruise in flight is a very close second.

The Anti-God

15 years have been kind to Mission: Impossible III. It helps that this is the beginning of a more overall thematic consistency to the franchise. Though Abrams only directed this installment, his Bad Robot Productions has served as the main production company for the rest of the franchise, including the upcoming seventh and eighth films. Though Cruise and Rhames have appeared in every film in the series, Simon Pegg's presence ended up being much more than just a one-off. (No doubt, Pegg's casting as Scotty in the revival of the Star Trek films, along with his starring role and co-writing of the brilliant action comedy Hot Fuzz, helped prove that he could do more than just play a comic-relief nerd.)

But in 2006, it wasn't so clear that Mission: Impossible III was going to lead to anything more in the series. It's not just that the film ends in such a way that, if this was the final entry, it would at least put a decent cap on the story of Ethan Hunt. The Americanized James Bond has settled down fully by the end of the film, after a quickie marriage and walking off happily from the IMF office in slow-motion with Julia. She knows who he is, and what he's capable of, but when Brassel (once again occupying the now-standard role of the powerful suit who initially presumes Ethan Hunt is the problem before understanding that he is the only solution) exhorts Ethan to return, teasing him with the promise of learning what the Rabbit's Foot actually is, our hero simply smiles and walks off with the possibility of never coming back.

And the box office was, itself, fairly resounding in implying that maybe Ethan Hunt should never come back. Chalk it up to negative public opinion about Cruise in the aftermath of his infamous appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show, his emphasis on Scientology, his criticism of Brooke Shields, or just general disinterest. But Mission: Impossible III was (and remains) the lowest-grossing entry in the series, with just $134 million domestically. (Remember the DreamWorks Animation film Over the Hedge? It opened two weeks later and grossed $155 million domestically. Is that cherry-picking? Sure. But talk about a low impact for Cruise.)

As luck would have it, though, Ethan Hunt is like the Energizer Bunny – he just keeps ticking, no matter how much you try to knock him down. III wouldn't end up as the last entry in the series, though a few years later, there was a real chance the only way to make a new chapter in Ethan Hunt's story would involve closing the book on him entirely and passing the torch to a new agent. But you can't count Ethan Hunt out that quickly, as everyone would soon learn.


Next Time: The President is about to activate Ghost Protocol.