(Welcome to Team Leaders, a series where we explore how the directors of the Mission: Impossible movies used this franchise as a canvas to explore their pet themes and show off their unique sensibilities. In this edition: J.J. Abrams brings his “mystery box” methods to the series and reboots it all.)

After Mission: Impossible II made over half a billion dollars worldwide, it wouldn’t seem prudent to re-tool the franchise’s format. However, due to the overblown shooting schedule on John Woo’s first sequel, and the fact that the somewhat compromised final cut received mixed to negative reviews from both critics and fans (on top of Tom Cruise butting heads with the Hong Kong auteur on numerous occasions behind the scenes), taking the Mission: Impossible movies in a new direction makes sense in hindsight (at least from its star/chief creative force’s perspective).

New Blood and a Smaller Scope

To remedy this perceived problem and strip Mission: Impossible III down to its core essentials – namely: focusing on Ethan Hunt as a character as opposed to merely being another elaborate, two-hour stunt show – Cruise recruited Lost co-mastermind J.J. Abrams to correct the series’ course. Cruise delayed production on the third M:I installment for a year just so Abrams – who was finishing up his storied TV run – could step behind the camera (much to Paramount head Sherry Lansing’s chagrin).  As a sort of package deal came Alias co-executive producers and writers Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who helped pen the script with Abrams for Hunt’s six-years-in-the-making return to your local multiplex.

As a result, Mission: Impossible III is a much “smaller” picture than the previous two, as Hunt has stepped away from his IMF duties and lives in a suburban Virginia home with new fiancée Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Of course, Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman aren’t going to treat audiences to some sort of domestic drama, as Ethan is called away by active Impossible Mission Force operative John Musgrave (Billy Crudup), who sets up a secret meeting in a 7-Eleven to inform Hunt that his protégé, Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell), has been kidnapped by black market arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). His mission (should he choose to accept it): retrieve Farris with a crew Musgrave’s already assembled – old pal Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and newly introduced agents Zhen Lei (Maggie Q) and Declan Gormley (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).

The Mystery Box

By ’06, Abrams had already become notorious for his “mystery box” McGuffin style of both plotting and marketing his entertainment – mostly thanks to the unsolvable enigmas of Lost and Alias’ pulpy spy obfuscation – and Mission: Impossible III is the first feature film example of this storytelling method writ large. After their failed attempt at rescuing Lindsey (who has a mini-bomb literally short circuit her brain), Ethan and the team spend the rest of M:I III pursuing Davian, whom they kidnap from Vatican City while the nefarious trader is there to obtain their primary vector: an undefined weapon known as “The Rabbit’s Foot”. If you’re wondering what the hell this furry appendage is, just know that you’ll frustratingly never be filled in. It’s simply a plot device to keep the squad jumping through hoops as they navigate from International Point A to International Point B.

Even Ethan becomes something of a Mystery Box, in terms of his relationship with Julia, a nurse tricked into believing her new hubby (whom she marries in secret before Ethan embarks on his quest) studies traffic patterns at the Department of Transportation. After Davian escapes from the group’s clutches, he vengefully kidnaps Julia, wrapping her up in Hunt’s world of espionage and state secrets, so that she can discover the true nature of her partner’s identity.

To be fair, this application of Abrams’ usual narrative modus operandi works in the picture’s favor, as we get to hear the team (particularly Luther) warn Ethan that folks in their line of work aren’t cut out for “normal relationships”, before seeing how Julia responds to having their profession rubbed in her face, complete with learning to load, shoot and kill when it comes time to defend herself. It’s a pretty textbook “set up/pay-off” arc that illustrates how satisfying a mystery can be for a character’s arc, should they be granted the opportunity to solve it.

A New Beginning, for Better and Worse

Abrams has never struggled with scope or staging action, which renders the common criticism of M:I III – that it’s a glorified TV pilot – a touch suspect. Lost was always one of the more epically gorgeous television programs to find its way onto a major network, and Alias sported better set pieces than most mid-range Hollywood thrillers. In M:I III Abrams flexes these already developed muscles with the backing of a $150 million budget, staging a stunning helicopter chase in a sea of German wind turbines during the attempted rescue of Farris, before having Hunt literally run up the side of a wall in Vatican City, and leap from skyscraper to skyscraper during the climactic Shanghai showdown with Owen. In-between, Abrams does a decent James Cameron impersonation with a missile attack on Hunt’s team while they transport Davian for interrogation.

Though never as grandiose as Woo or playfully elaborate as De Palma, there’s a cleanliness to Abrams’ choreography, that’s further enhanced by his future Star Trek (’09) / Into Darkness (’13) cinematographer Dan Mindel and accented by consummate composer Michael Giacchino (who returns the series’ theme to its percussion-heavy roots).

Hiring an artist from a serialized storytelling background also allowed Cruise to reboot the series in its source’s image, as Mission: Impossible III cuts short the franchise’s trend of feeling like self-contained installments. From this point forward, characters beyond Luther – such as Julia and IMF keyboard jockey Benji Dunn (Abrams’ Nuevo Scotty, Simon Pegg) – would play roles in the ongoing Mission: Impossible universe, as Abrams replaced Cruise’s producing partner Paula Wagner (via his Bad Robot banner) and even helped Cruise select The Incredibles (’04) director Brad Bird for the next film, Ghost Protocol (’11). For better or worse, the franchise was reborn with Abrams as a parent, and the years of these films being auteur showcases went by the wayside, making room for its maturation into a more straightforward serial.

Thankfully, the next sequel would also be the first to involve The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (as a behind the scenes script “fixer” of sorts), whose work with Cruise on two unrelated projects (Valkyrie and Jack Reacher) would double as a veritable try-out to take over the Mission: Impossible reins.

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