RECAP: Mission: Impossible 3

Mission: Impossible 3 (2006): J.J. Abrams

After an underwhelming sequel from John Woo, world-class cinematic entertainer J.J. Abrams got the reins of the Impossible Franchise.

It’s hard to believe, ten years on, that hiring Abrams was a bit of a risky proposition. He had never tried a straight action movie before, but he was certainly a god on the small screen.

Felicity, Alias, and Lost were about as big as TV hits got in the 21st century. Still, Abrams directing was not the lead story. Instead, it was, as usual, that Tom Cruise was in the movie.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Superspy Ethan Hunt wants to quit the spy game, but a kidnapped former student draws him back to the field. 

Hero (7/10)

World-beater Ethan Hunt returns for his Scarface mission. In this third installment of impossible missions, Hunt starts the movie retired, trying to get out. He’s a guy ready to be a domesticated man, the guy who’s too slow for the the game, the guy who remembers Lake Wannaka.

Mission: Impossible 3 opens with a torture scene. We don’t know who is under the gun of Philip Seymour Hoffman, but she sure is having an effect on Hunt. Only later do we realize that it’s Julia, his wife.

Hunt is out of the spy game. He’s an instructor, and the person he thought ready for the field has gone missing. So IMF pulls him back in. See, like Scarface?

Hunt’s skills are not a bit rusty.  They should be, I think. The script could have added tension if Hunt forgot some things or lost a step. He didn’t.

This Hunt is eager for a life after spying. He’s already tried it. “What I see in Julia,” Hunt says to his confidant and partner Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), “is life before all this. And it’s good.” Maybe Hunt just wants to capture the past.

Cruise is of course his normal intense self. He shines no better than in the torture/interrogation scene that opens the film. Cruise is strapped to a chair facing a then-unknown (to us, but not to him) woman, and an angry Hoffman.

Clearly, someone’s going to die, as soon as Hoffman counts to 10. Boy, does that take a long time. Hoffman counts like he can’t remember the numbers and has to think real hard about it.

Anyway, Hunt starts freaking out at “two.” His eye is bloodshot and bloated, like someone put a fishbowl in front of it. Each of Hoffman’s numbers elicits a different reaction from Hunt in the chair: pleading, rage, struggling against the straps, tears; they’re all there. Damn fine scene and a great way to open a movie.

There’s a lot of masks in this movie, and Hunt wears an emotional one with his Julia. When he returns from the failed rescue attempt of a former student, which his fiancee thought was a conference in Houston, he’s shaken, broken. The mask is down. Julia asks him if he’s OK, and Hunt snaps the mask back in place. “Just tired,” he says.

Villain (3/10)

When you want to make a good movie, hand the lead role to an Oscar winner. When you want to make a good movie great, make an Oscar winner play the villain.

Abrams and company handed the role of Owen Davian to Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman. While I don’t think it made the movie great, undermining about everything I said in the previous paragraph, Hoffman did make the villain great.

Hoffman brings a lazy persona to his roles, and this one is no different. Davian is a scary guy, but mostly because of what we saw him do in the first scene to that woman Hunt was agitated about.

In the rest of the movie, Davian seems bored by everything. If hanging from a plane and having your own face speak to you in a Vatican bathroom doesn’t interest you, what does?

Hoffman’s own body type adds to his interest. High school linemen shouldn’t be dealing in black market weapons, but with Hoffman in the villain role we seem to get just that.

Davian didn’t have much to do. He only fights in the end, after Hunt is near death because an explosive is about to go off in his brain. He shows some very good skill roughing up the vulnerable Hunt, and he possesses great power in his frame. Of course, he still can’t stop Hunt.

Action/Effects (7/10)

Yeah we’re gonna get some action. Hell yeah!

Very early on we watch Hunt back in the field, going after his favorite student, Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell), who was kidnapped by Davian’s people.

The mission is a standard grab-and-go, in which Stickell runs the show from a van. He also has four trackballs controlling huge machine guns that shred the abandoned factory while Hunt and his partner infiltrate and rescue Farris.

Hunt jabs her with needle and injects adrenaline. “You’re going to feel this,” he says, in the understatement of the year. Farris, formerly drugged into a half-comatose state, is fully capable of escaping.

Hunt and Farris do, and the whole team ends up on a helicopter. Just when they think they’re safe, a gunship arrives to fire rockets at them. Hunt’s chopper flies through a wind farm, dodging rockets and turbine blades.

Meanwhile, a strange charge has activated in Farris’s head. Hunt has just the tool for it: a device that practically x-rays her brain and reads the elemental signature of the device.

Turns out that it’s a bomb. Hunt gets the defibrillator warmed up, while Stickell fires flares at the heat-seeking rockets and the pilot bobs and weaves amongst turbines.

Many things are endangering the IMF team. As the defib nears the 30 seconds it needs to charge, Farris’s head snaps. The device has blown. Russell’s face turns cock-eyed, like a Picasso mask on a real face. It’s a shocking moment, for Hunt and for the audience.

About two-thirds into the movie, Hunt has captured Davian and has him on board an armored truck. The truck, plus two IMF trucks following behind, mingle on the two-lane bridge with civilian traffic.

One moment the heroes are studying the blue sea, and the next moment – WHAM! – two missiles are exploding the bridge. The culprit? DRONES. Hunt scrambles from his wrecked truck only to meet a helicopter carrying eight or so black-clad commandos.

The chopper hovers ominously beside the bridge, taunting Hunt. We don’t know who they are, but we know they’ve come for the blonde dude wallowing in the armored truck.

The copter flies around the bridge and peppers everyone and everything with bullets. The IMF team fires back, but it’s pistols versus machine guns. Stickell shouts to Hunt that there’s a G35 in the truck. I don’t know what that is, but I bet it don’t shoot BBs.

Hunt sprints from a wrecked car toward the overturned black Suburban. In the background, out of focus, we can see the commandos tossing gas canisters onto the bridge.

Hunt is out of range of the copter, but someone tells the drone operator to take him out. The drone circling the bridge zooms back as Hunt grapples with the gun case. He sees the drone, and the missile it fired, streaking toward him. He escapes in time, but the explosion blasts Hunt sideways into a car.

Hunt assembles the machine gun and fires at the chopper, but it’s too late. The baddies have already used the drone distraction to free Davian from the armored truck and fly away.

Sidekicks (3/8)

Rhames and Cruise are the stalwarts of the Mission: Impossible franchise, and Rhames shines again as Luther Stickell. He is not as prominent a character as past times, but he brings comedy and advice to this movie in each scene. He’s not so much like Hunt’s dad as his uncle.

In the Berlin factory and beneath the Vatican, Stickell and Hunt chat about Hunt’s relationship with Julia and whether or not he should even try. They discuss these finer points while in the middle of extremely dangerous, edge-of-the-knife operations that will end in many deaths. Just so you know they are cool.

Stickell gets a lot of funny lines. It’s funny that he gives Hunt’s marriage “24 months.” Not two years, like most people would says, but 24 months. He also questions Hunt’s relationship to Farris, after her death.

Hunt says that Farris was “like a little sister” to him. Stickell says, tactfully, “And you never…slept with your little sister, right?” They just don’t have the time for metaphor, right? He also calls Hunt “Mr. Those Who Can’t, Teach.”

The rest of the team is new. Jonathan Rhys Meyers nearly pulls off an Irish accent. Oh, you say he is Irish? I see. Hmm. He’s barely used, forgettable as a character.

That can’t be said about Maggie Q. She’s the other person on the team that’s new and mostly silent. Being a beautiful woman, she has a chance to wear a gorgeous dress. Spy movie producers will never deny their audiences a chance to see a beautiful woman in a beautiful dress, even if said woman wears said dress to THE VATICAN.

Q has even less to do. She’s pretty good with a gun. She takes a bullet in the chest. She leaps through a glass wall before a grenade explodes. That’s it.

Lack of sidekick aid proves that the third impossible mission is Hunt’s show.

Henchmen (1/8)

Davian is barely in the movie. In several of his scenes, he doesn’t even speak, a disadvantage for the film, given Hoffman’s acting skill.

His chief aid is the twist of the film. If you’ve read this far and haven’t seen the movie, this is your last warning. GO BACK.

Billy Crudup plays John Musgrave, a well titled official working for the US government. He sends Hunt into the field to rescue the captured Farris. Much later, when Hunt is given the Hannibal Lecter treatment in a basement facility, Musgrave is the guy helping him break out.

Crudup drops the classic do-gooder spy service desk jockey of old for a nuanced, individualized persona, which matches with the character after the third act reveal.

His motivation seems a little forced. Why would Musgrave go to so much trouble to learn what Hunt learned from Farris’s microdot message? Seems like the effort would do more to expose him than doing nothing. He was panicked, and that ended his life.

In total, the baddies in this movie weren’t strong enough. Hunt battles the baddies, but he battles his personal life just as much.

Stunts (6/6)

What actor does stunts better than Tom Cruise? He did a great fight scene inside an elevator. Though Hunt begins an elevator ride strapped to a gurney, he ends it as the only guy conscious.

Musgrave helps him break free of his restraints, but Hunt does the dirty work. He knees some guys, he punches some guys, he even throws the emergency phone at the emergency stop button and hits it dead on.

That truck explosion was the best stunt. The camera pulls away from the doomed overturned Suburban as Hunt runs from it. The explosion blasts Hunt sideways into a car. I expected forward or down, not sideways. I doubt the pressure wave would move Hunt’s body like that, but it looked good on film.

I can’t leave without mentioning Cruise and Russell (or her stunt double) sliding off a van from the roof down its front and onto the ground.

Climax (5/6)

Julia’s kidnapping clearly affects Hunt. As he plots to steal the Rabbit’s Foot in Shanghai, he is visibly struggling to maintain his cool. Maybe’s it’s the summer weather, but Cruise glistens as he calculates on a window his fulcrum run to infiltrate one of Shanghai’s highest buildings.

The rest of the team believes Hunt is going too far to try to save his wife. Hunt knows this, and he assures them he won’t let it obstruct his reasoning. If she dies, well, “we’re both dead anyway,” he says.

We are treated to a great helicopter shot encircling Plaza 66, one of Shanghai’s highest buildings, as Hunt prepares to jump onto the angled glass roof of one of the Bocom Financial Towers.

(These towers are very tall, nearing 1,000 feet. They dominate the skyline in the movie. Since its release, Shanghai has raised four towers taller than the Bocom.)

Q and Meyers pepper baseballs onto the glass roof, confusing the guards. How did they find a baseball pitching machine in China in less than two hours? China is not a baseball-crazy country.

Hunt follows his calculations to a T. He runs off the higher building and swings around it toward the Bocom. With tremendous speed he swings over it, cutting his line and falling about 15 feet onto the glass.

So begins the slide. Hunt slides backwards toward his death. But first he caps two guards with two shots, surely the easy part of his infiltration. He stops right at the roof’s edge.

Now comes the stealing of the Rabbit’s Foot. Cut to Meyers and Q waiting in a truck. Q mutters a prayer to bring back her cat. Meyers annoyingly interrupts her.

The radio crackles and Hunt leaps from a window, far too low to open his base jumping chute. Interestingly, we never see Hunt steal the Rabbit’s Foot. Nor do we ever learn what it is. Nor do we ever learn what Davian’s buyers plan to do with it. Or who they are. Say, what kind of movie is this?

It’s still an action movie. Hunt is in the truck now, and they are speeding from the guards. In a nifty stunt, Hunt leans out the door, parallel with the road, and shoots out a tire.

Hunt calls Davian to trade Foot for Wife. Hunt waits in an abandoned area for a limo to take him to make the trade. He drinks a potion and wakes up with an explosive in his head.

We are spared watching the entire interrogation scene a second time, but we see enough to learn that Davian really did shoot Julia. Or at least her simulacrum. Turns out he also has a face-making printer device. It wasn’t Julia he killed, but one of Davian’s underlings. So who cares?

Musgrave reveals his motivation. He wants to work with the suppliers to get the demanders. He calls Davian a “weed.” Perhaps his buyers are also weeds. He never considers that. Did Hunt tell anyone else about Musgrave’s dirty deeds? That’s what this was all about.

Hunt doesn’t care. He wants Julia. He lures Musgrave close, then headbutts him and steals his pen, which he uses to unlock his cuffs. Once he gets outside, he starts to run. We watch a tracking shot that lasts 15 seconds or so of Hunt running. No one runs with purpose and intensity like Tom Cruise.

When Hunt finds the real Julia, he finds Davian, learns that Davian has activated the charge in his brain, and throws the activator at Hunt. Simultaneously, my watch alarm started beeping in another room of my house. I thought my entertainment system had reached a new level of surround sound.

Davian uses the advantage to rough up Hunt. The arms dealer has a lot of power in his chunky body. Hunt is on the brink. But he recovers from the shock to strike Davian.

Davian picks up a gun. He says that he will kill Julia in front of Hunt, contradicting what he claimed he would do earlier. We go to slow motion, as the lovers look each other down.

Hunt explodes in anger and elbows the crap out of Davian. They crash into the street, just in time for a truck to speed into Davian and over Hunt.

About that charge in Hunt’s head. He’s got minutes of life left. He has to shock the charge, then shock his heart back, as he planned to do earlier with Farris.

Despite all these problems, he has time to teach Julia basic gun skills–loading, pointing, shooting. She is taking all this very well, considering she has no idea why her husband can do these things nor why some international arms dealer wanted to kill them both.

Julia dutifully shocks Hunt. Immediately two guys come in. She deals with them by unloading her entire clip into them. One of those guys was Musgrave carrying the Rabbit’s Foot.

Julia CPRs Hunt. That doesn’t work. He’s been out nearly a minute. Finally she resorts to chest pounding, which works. Chest pounding always works. They should teach that in CPR class.

The spouses walk outside to find that Shanghai is actually a beautiful city when people aren’t trying to kill you.

Jokes (3/4)

Mission: Impossible always does a fine job inserting comedy without it seeming like a shoehorn.

This time out we get Ving Rhames, as always, and a new addition from the UK named Simon Pegg. Pegg plays Benji Dunn, a hacker/nerd who remains firmly on American soil doing the tech stuff every field agent needs.

Dunn first works on a hard drive fried to a crisp in the botched Berlin rescue. He’s able to pull off enough information to advance the plot.

Later, Dunn takes a call from Hunt, who is, as usual, on the run from his own people. (It often appears that the most dangerous people spies face are their friends. Perhaps Stickell was right to chide Hunt for having a relationship. Eventually she would turn on him and try to kill him.)

Dunn, nervous tech guy, fears reprisal for aiding and abetting. He pointedly remarks on the moment he actually abetted. You know you’re in for it when Benji Dunn is your last hope. Although, he’s the same guy who says “tits up” when things aren’t going so hot.

They crammed some other gags in there. Try to imagine driving a six-figure car through Rome, stopping in the street, opening the floor, looking through it to your friend wearing a Phillip Seymour Hoffman mask in the sewer. Then ask your friend, “What’s up?” The characters in this movie do these kinds of things.

Setting (3/4)

Shanghai was the most interesting location in Mission: Impossible 3. The city was still new to the world consciousness, and several of the skyscrapers filmed were less than 10 years old.

Aerial shots perfectly encapsulated the towers in the night, so we could see their blue lights better. When Hunt slides down the angled roof of one of the Bocom Financial Towers, that was a splendid moment of moviemaking, thanks to the great location.

Shanghai was a great place, but the location that shined brightest was Vatican City. From its crumbling walls to its spotless marble floors, the city-state was full of contradictions.

Men with cassocks walked beside state-of-the-art security rooms. Centuries-old rafters hung about gleaming interiors. A country that professes openness and inclusivity is surrounded by 50-foot walls.

Commentary (0/2)

Hunt was often at odds with his brethren regarding his real world relationship. He wanted one outside of the spy world, but the spying kept pulling him back in, this time dragging his home life with him.

I wish I could say that the movie wants to tell us that the people keeping us safe are having a rough go of a normal life. Even though most of Hunt’s team would agree with the previous statement, the movie doesn’t go that far.

Mission: Impossible 3 is, first and foremost, a vehicle of explosive entertainment. Hunt and crew are there to deliver you thrills. Whatever Hunt’s actions might say about the world he inhabits are tangential only.

The world is a dangerous place, of course, but we (spy movie fans) have known that for decades. Without the aid of brave and skilled men and women like those in the (fake) IMF, ours would be a world horrible and unlivable.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

About Maggie Q’s red dress. I’ve never been to a party for elites at the Vatican, but I don’t think it’s at the forefront of clothing trends. Its powers-that-be haven’t updated the dress code in millennia.

Seems unlikely that Maggie Q would be allowed in the country wearing such a dress. Seems unlikely that she would wear such a dress to a party where she was trying to go unnoticed. Seems unlikely that filmmakers would care, and just wanted to give viewers the chance to watch a babe in tight threads.

I offer wide berth to Hollywood films in this category, so I won’t deduct any points. Just pointing out that it was dumb, and I noticed.


  • Yeah, you did see future Jesse Pinkman Aaron Paul chilling at Hunt’s house.
  • How many times will bad guys have their important gear stolen because they were wearing a white shirt and someone spilled wine on it? Bad guys: stop wearing white shirts.
  • According to Stickell, The Vatican has more security cameras than acres.
  • Laurence Fishburne’s character tells Hunt that he will lie to Farris’s parents, telling them that their daughter died in an accident on I-95. Highway death tolls are appalling, but might many of them be attributed to spy deaths? Do we need to rethink both traffic safety and international spy craft?
  • Of course Julia is a nurse.

Summary (38/68): 56%

Mission: Impossible 3 gets lost in the shuffle of its series. A dynamic (confusing) original, followed later by mega stunts like hanging from cargo planes and half-mile skyscrapers, swallowed this, at time of writing, middle installment of the travails of the IMF.

The villain was played by a guy who almost never appeared, at any point in his life, in blockbusters, and had just won an Oscar. These casting choices are subtle, but they give the movie a unique flavor.

Also, Hunt is tasked with stealing a super-deadly weapon called The Rabbit’s Foot. We see it a couple of times, and it appears to be a canister with a biological hazard symbol emblazoned on it.

No one ever explains what the canister is, what it does, who wants it, or why. That NEVER happens in spy movies. We never saw Hunt stealing the thing either. We see him enter and exit the building where dozens of men were guarding it, but the camera stays with Hunt’s supporting cast as they wait for him to steal it.

The movie is paced quickly enough that we don’t feel robbed until after the movie ends. So were we robbed? I don’t think so. Mission: Impossible 3 provided the requisite thrills of the genre, just from different angles.