Mission: Control

Photo: Stephen Vaughan/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

As an unyielding hit man in Michael Mann’s Collateral, Tom Cruise makes an all-too-convincing loony control freak. It follows that Mission: Impossible III, which Cruise co-produced, is a loony-control-freak thriller, a multi-angle vanity mirror built to magnify its leading man’s acting chops, energy, athleticism, willingness to stand up to power, and infinite capacity for loyalty and love. In the world of bloated movie-star vehicles, it’s not unusual to see an ego trip of these dimensions. What’s rare is when one hits its marks so smoothly.

J. J. Abrams is a good director for Cruise. The creator of the TV series Alias and Lost, he doesn’t have much personality of his own to get in the way; he knows how to display—and fetishize—his stars without tipping into Stallone-esque camp; and he’s an expert in TV shorthand, in cramming lots of plot into small units of time. M:i:III (dig that shorthand!) opens with a brutally disorienting scene that comes near the end of the story line, a torture session in which an icy sadist, Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), announces that Ethan (Cruise) has a bomb implanted in his head and that if he doesn’t turn over something called “the rabbit’s foot,” Davian will blow him up and put a bullet in his significant other, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). At a dire moment, Abrams leaps back in time to trace Ethan’s path to that showdown—and so the standard thriller machinations are intensified by our knowledge of the horrors to come.

The narrative needs tricking up, because Cruise’s stardom has always compromised the Mission: Impossible “franchise.” (I hate that term for anything other than McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts outlets, but it’s now inescapable.) The original TV series was a narcotic, but the concept kept you reasonably attentive: The expressionless ensemble would devise a perfect machine for scamming some crime lord or dictator into blowing his own operation sky-high—then they’d take off without, in some cases, the baddie-victim even realizing what had happened. But Cruise needed to engineer the stories around his own titanic self, so Ethan is now often a rogue agent, and the cons are inevitably cast aside in favor of chases, explosions, and kung fu. Really, if it weren’t for the irresistible Lalo Schifrin theme—which gets the heart Pavlovianly pounding in the manner of the signature James Bond motif—Cruise might as well have revived Mannix.

There is an IMF (Impossible Mission Force) ensemble in M:i:III, but its members are strikingly undercharacterized. The very pretty Jonathan Rhys Meyers shows off his (surprisingly unconvincing for an Irishman) Irish accent while the Hawaii-born Hong Kong stunner Maggie Q shows off her (very convincing) legs. The returning Ving Rhames (as techie Luther) counsels Ethan that “a normal relationship isn’t viable” for an IMF agent, and it’s a testament to the writers’ economy that he holds this conversation while guiding Ethan (via an earpiece) through a field of machine-gun-wielding heavies. Keri Russell, the angel face of Abrams’s Felicity, shakes up her image with some good karate kicks, but it’s Monaghan as Ethan’s hospital-worker-fiancée who pulls a real person out of the haze of the movie’s Cruise worship. (They have carnal relations—rather unhygienically—in a medical supply closet: a rejoinder to South Park?)

The screenplay (by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Abrams) builds to yet another senseless twist that’s best not to dwell on for fear of short-circuiting one’s beautiful mind, but at least Abrams keeps the action whizzing along. The staging isn’t especially witty, though: There are no flourishes to savor. Instead, there are big-deal stunts. You get Cruise scaling a Vatican wall and doing a swan dive off an angled, blue-lit Shanghai skyscraper. You get the familiar slowed-down shot of him leaping over a crevice, with all four limbs pumping furiously. He is a silly man, but you have to respect his hustle.

Going into M:i:III, I was most excited to see how the ultraserious Hoffman, fresh from his Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote, would do as a super-villain. He does fine; he plays it purposefully monotonic. That might be Hoffman’s lone failing as an actor—that he tends to settle into one key and thinks it’s a mark of integrity never to leave it. He’s more fun to watch—more limber, more alive—in one of those trademark Mission: Impossible rubber-mask scenes in which he plays Tom Cruise playing him. He even flashes a Cruise-like smile. I felt a twinge of disappointment when Ethan peeled off the mask and there was Cruise again, still tiresomely proving himself.

Down in the Valley has an authentic emotional vibe that almost carries you past the movie’s swerve from plaintive romance to something more unhinged. The writer-director, David Jacobson, has caught hold of a great idea and done it justice: the way real love can bloom out of a mutual delusion. Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) is a nubile Valley Girl who, on a trip with her friends to the beach, gazes through the windshield at the rangy, diffident young man (Edward Norton) in a cowboy hat who fills the car with gas. His quiet, gentle demeanor captures her instantly, and he responds to the steadiness—the un–Valley Girlishness—of her attraction. They make an enchanting pair of ingenues.

Jacobson doesn’t spell out what binds the couple, but the underpinnings are there. The cowboy, Harlan, is the opposite of Tobe’s overbearing corrections-officer father (David Morse). He’s not a creature of the Valley: His eyes are on the mountains, above the smog line. When he takes her out on the horse ofa rancher he once worked for, the ride is so transporting that she can’t even process it when the cranky old man (Bruce Dern) claims to have no idea who Harlan is. The best thing about Down in the Valley is that you hope it’s not going where you have an inkling it’s going. The purity of Norton’s madness is a wonder.

The man who created the original Mission: Impossible television series in 1966 was a New Yorker named Bruce Geller. He’d done stints on manly shows such as The Rifleman and Rawhide and would later develop the tough-guy series Mannix . But Geller, who died in a 1978 plane crash, turned to macho TV only after failing Off Broadway, where he wrote the lyrics for two short-lived musicals: the Mark Twain–inspired Livin’ the Life and the frilly All in Love, which featured characters inspired by eighteenth-century writer Richard Sheridan: Lydia Languish, Lady Garter, and one man with a name more manly than Tom Cruise—Jack Absolute.

Mission: Impossible III
Directed by J. J. Abrams. Paramount. PG-13.

Down in the Valley
Directed by David Jacobson. ThinkFilm. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Mission: Control