Mission Impossible revisited: J. J. Abrams’ Mission Impossible III

Mission Impossible III
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The Mission: Impossible saga hit slightly bumpier times with JJ Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III – but there’s an argument it saved the franchise.

Mission Impossible III may not be the strongest outing in the franchise, but it may be the most human.


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Surprisingly, this works as both a strength and to the film’s detriment in the eyes of many. For everyone who considers Mission Impossible II the weakest episode of the saga, not far behind will be a detractor of J.J. Abrams’ sequel to John Woo’s own take on Bruce Geller’s kitsch 1960’s series. This, to me, is hard to fathom, and not simply as a big fan of Abrams and the dominance his works have achieved on pop culture, both in television and cinema. The reason this revisionist disdain for Mission: Impossible III is strange to me is because Abrams’ movie arguably saved the franchise, and allowed Tom Cruise to not just reinvent his character Ethan Hunt but position Mission Impossible as a series which blended fantasy escapism with a relatable heart and soul.

Consider where the franchise was before Cruise hired Abrams to revive the series’ fortunes.

The first Mission Impossible, helmed by Brian De Palma, was a critical and commercial hit in 1996, but its Hitchcockian deconstruction of the 1960s series was both alienating as well as engaging, and the film ultimately positioned Hunt as the central character around which the series would pivot, thanks to Cruise’s ascendancy to the role of the World’s Biggest Movie Star (a role, to some extent, he has never really lost).

Mission Impossible II then tried to reinvent Hunt and the series as an all-American, superheroic take on the Bond franchise, with Woo’s own unique directorial trademarks as central to the picture as Cruise’s stardom. Mission Impossible was no longer really about a team or even much of an espionage aesthetic – it was about the slick charisma and derring do of Ethan Hunt.

This left Mission Impossible as a franchise at a bit of a crossroads. What direction could it take? Could it continue angling the series around Hunt as an indestructible scion of masculine Americana? Or could it return to the core aspects of not just De Palma’s movie but Geller’s original series? The fact is, up to that point, Mission Impossible had never quite captured the aesthetic of the 1960s show. The only character it took from that series was Jim Phelps, the IMF team leader played by Peter Graves, and in having him be the villain through Jon Voight’s portrayal, it suggested the the technical 60’s espionage we saw thirty years before could not be done in the post-modern 1990s. It needed a superhero like Cruise/Hunt to save the day, which MI2 then gave us.

Before Abrams was drafted, David Fincher was approached to take on MI3, in the wake of his zeitgeist-making success with Fight Club, but he swiftly left the project, suggesting the same unique vision John Woo delivered with the previous film was not what Cruise, fellow producer Paula Wagner, and the studio Paramount were looking for. Whatever the case with Fincher, and how far he developed MI3, there is no doubt he would have made an incredibly different picture than Abrams eventually turned in. Would it, however, have laid the seeds of the successful franchise which has developed since Abrams’ picture?

The same question hovers over director Joe Carnahan, who spent over a year developing a picture which would have featured Carrie Anne-Moss, a young Scarlett Johansson and Kenneth Branagh as a domestic-terrorist villain “based on Timothy McVeigh”, the notorious Oklahoma City federal building bomber, and even offered Thandiwe Newton the chance to reprise her MI2 role as love interest Nyah Nordoff-Hall, which she declined (and frankly it’s no wonder given how her character was butchered across Woo’s picture).

Again, Carnahan seems a strange fit for the tone Mission: Impossible III eventually settled upon; less technical than Fincher, Carnahan is a much more masculine American director – a modern Walter Hill, almost. He perhaps would have built on the idea of Hunt as a mythic American hero but almost certainly would have brought him, and the franchise, down to a gritty level of earth.

Mission Impossible III

Carnahan ended up leaving over the film’s ‘tone’ and you wonder if perhaps Cruise already had designs on humanising Ethan Hunt following MI2. Perhaps he sensed, also based on critical reactions, that MI2 took the character and the franchise too far away from what they had originally been designed to be. Nonetheless, it seems the penny dropped for Cruise in what he wanted, and tonally the direction he wanted Mission Impossible III to go in, quite unexpectedly:

I was working on Mission Impossible and I was up at about two in the morning one night, and I just [said] “Ah, I’m gonna watch Alias”, so I just started watching Alias and I was blown away by what he accomplished. His sense of timing, suspense. I thought “d’you know what? I want JJ Abrams to direct the movie.

Anyone who knows J.J. Abrams’ ABC show Alias also understands that Mission Impossible III ends up being, essentially, a big-screen version of ‘Truth Be Told’, the pilot episode of the series which truly launched Abrams’ career as a showrunner and ended up being his entry point as a big-screen producer and director.

Alias was never a massive critical and commercial hit; it aired, unluckily, in the wake of the 9/11 attack on New York’s Twin Towers and consequently its retro-60s, B-movie, quasi-Bond aesthetic fused with mystery box storytelling didn’t curry audience favour in the same way as a far more conservative American action show at the same time, 24. Alias’ Sydney Bristow felt like a holdover heroine from a ‘pre-terrorism’ 90s, whereas 24’s Jack Bauer was the crusading one-man army people needed then.

There are other reasons why Alias ended up fading into obscurity, and why it was never quite as good following its intricate, twisty-turny first two seasons, but the show certainly stuck for Tom Cruise. He presumably saw just how much Abrams had been inspired in how he constructed Alias by the 1960’s Mission Impossible; Sydney worked for almost an ‘evil’ version of the Impossible Missions Force, known as SD-6; she would go on missions across the globe which required a level of technical expertise and game playing, wearing disguises and acting different roles; and she would often find herself embroiled in murky espionage against rival agencies or teams in a post-Cold War arena which felt like a throwback to days where heroes and villains were more easily defined. What Alias had in spades, however, was something Cruise may well have been looking for: heart.

Previously: Revisiting Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible
Previously: Revisiting John Woo’s Mission Impossible II

Abrams has been likened in some ways to Steven Spielberg, in how he approaches storytelling from a very human perspective but imbues his characters and scenarios with a high-concept level of escapism. Spielberg is arguably more durable and technically deft, as one of the greatest directors of the last 50 years – if not the greatest – but Abrams to a degree is an heir apparent when it comes to tone and scope. In the franchises Abrams has steered over the last decade, from Mission Impossible to Star Trek and through now to Star Wars, he has revived properties which brought charm, heroism and a sense of wonder to audiences in the 1960s and 1970s, the decades in which he grew up as a child enthralled by the kind of cinema Spielberg delivered. That wonder has never really left him.

Quite how much of Alias he puts into Mission Impossible III, however, is honestly quite brazen, and no doubt went unnoticed by millions of audience members familiar with Cruise and his franchise, but unfamiliar with the show that put Abrams on the map. ‘Truth Be Told’, the Alias pilot, sees heroine Sydney keeping secret her life as a super-spy from her fiancee Danny, a doctor. In MI3, Ethan has been grounded from the carefree, dangerous charmer who wooed Nyah in MI2 to a man in love with a nurse, Julia, who he is keeping his life in IMF secret from as they become engaged. In ‘Truth Be Told’, Sydney ends up telling Danny about her secret life and it gets him killed. In MI3, Julia is abducted by the villain, Owen Davian, and Ethan is forced to expose who he really is to save her life. In ‘Truth Be Told’, Sydney heads to Taiwan in order to recover the ‘Mueller Device’, a mysterious piece of technology with an unknown application. In MI3, Ethan heads to Shanghai to find the ‘Rabbit’s Foot’, a mysterious piece of technology with, yes, you guessed it, an unknown application.

Mission: Impossible III even opens with the same use of in media res storytelling as we see in ‘Truth Be Told’, a narrative device in which the story does not take place in a linear fashion (the Latin literally translates as ‘into the middle of things’) Abrams’ film begins with a scene we won’t reach or understand the context of until the final act, but it quite skilfully reminds us of who Ethan is, introduces the fact he has a personal stake in Julia, and immediately brings to bear Philip Seymour Hoffman and his decidedly cruel line of villainy. Alias’ pilot repeatedly flashes forward to Sydney, captured by a sinister enemy, being tortured for information, in a similar fashion.

Even the character of Benji Dunn, played by Simon Pegg in a role that would kickstart his breakout from quirky British comedy star to Hollywood supporting player and sometime leading man, is a thinly veiled copy of Alias’ Marshall Flinkman – the tech geek slightly in awe of the heroic spy, who aids him on his off-the-grid mission. Marshall was himself a modern variant on the Q character from the James Bond movies, and Pegg’s Benji ends up in the next film, Ghost Protocol, and subsequent movies beyond, operating much more as an ‘in the field’ version of Q himself.

Interestingly, as a side point, the role of Benji was originally earmarked for Ricky Gervais, who had guest starred on Alias (as an Irish terrorist – no, really) and became friends with Abrams. One suspects Benji would have turned out very differently if Gervais had been able to take on the role.

Mission Impossible III

My point is that Mission Impossible III and Alias are hugely intertwined in terms of tone, narrative and sensibility. It is, unquestionably, the Alias movie Abrams knew he would never be able to make, given how that series rapidly became a cult offering, rather than a global phenomenon in the vein of the show that followed it – Lost. Mission: Impossible III even steals screenwriters who cut their teeth on Alias in Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who would go on to pen Abrams’ Star Trek revival in 2009. It is at this point the Mission Impossible franchise very much edges itself into the Bad Robot production company wheelhouse, the company Abrams fronts and one which has wrapped its tentacles around several of the biggest cinematic and TV franchises in American popular culture.

This arguably also begins the transformation of Mission Impossible into a series which doesn’t feel the need to reinvent itself quite in the same way with subsequent pictures, though for some MI3 was not necessarily considered the strongest of the pictures up to that point. The aforementioned Carnahan, perhaps a trifle inelegantly, went on record decrying the Abrams approach:

Were we going to do something that would have kicked the shit out of the movie they wound up doing? Absolutely. I’m not even going to shy away from that. I know the film we made was going to be better because I thought it was important. And the movie we were making was about private military and what was going on in Africa.

We can only speculate on what David Fincher may have chosen as a plot for his Mission: Impossible III but we can see here than Carnahan had a very different approach in what he considered Mission Impossible to be. Abrams, arguably, wasn’t looking to make MI3 a film about an issue, or commenting on geopolitics in the same manner Carnahan visualised. He wanted to make a film which humanised Ethan Hunt and brought him down to earth in a different way, to make him the kind of family man MI2 shied away from and de Palma’s MI dialled down.

In that original film, Ethan’s parents are used as a bargaining chip by Henry Czerny’s IMF agent Kittridge but they are off screen and consequently provide no emotional investment for the audience. Mission: Impossible III, from the very beginning, puts family front and centre.

The entire trigger that drags Ethan back into the IMF, and puts Julia in danger, concerns a protege in Lindsey Farris (played by Keri Russell, the lead in his first series Felicity) who is out of contact in the field and in peril. It’s Ethan’s attachment to her as a mentor or a ‘big brother’ figure, as he at one point clarifies he is to her when it’s suggested she may have been a lover – she likely would have been to MI2 Ethan – which makes him accept his impossible mission. De Palma’s film is more about a vengeful Ethan seeking to outfox the mole at the heart of the IMF who destroyed his team and friends, while Woo’s sequel tries to invest Ethan in his feelings for Nyah, but they never come across as anything more than a casual bit of sex which the film tries to bludgeon into a great, tragic romance. Right from the off, Ethan and Julia have a grounded, relatable (if white American middle-class) chemistry whereby you believe them as a couple, in no small part thanks to Michelle Monaghan’s likeable performance.

If anything, the heightened fantasy of the Mission Impossible series is writ large thanks to Ethan and Julia’s relationship, and intentionally so in the vein of Alias once again; Ethan tells Julia he works as an analyst studying traffic patterns (Abrams choosing surely the world’s most boring profession) while in reality he and his IMF team are breaking into Vatican City to capture an elusive global terrorist who is trying to sell a weapon which Benji describes as the ‘anti-God’. Abrams’ fascination with trying to deconstruct religion continues in MI3, in a similar way to Alias and that shows’ Rambaldi mythology, in that Ethan and his team break into the Vatican (which Sydney also does in Alias, in an episode called ‘The Prophecy’) and how he describes the Rabbit’s Foot in mythological religious terminology. This is how Benji puts it:

I used to have this professor at Oxford, okay? Doctor Wickham, his name was and he was, like, this massive fat guy, you know? Huge, big guy. We used to call him, you knpw… well, I won’t tell you what we used to call him, but he taught biomolecular kinetics and cellular dynamics. And he used to sort of scare the underclassmen with this story about how the world would eventually be eviscerated by technology. You see, it was inevitable that a compound would be created which he referred to as the ’anti-God’. It was like an accelerated mutator or sort of, you know, like a, an unstoppable force of destructive power, that would just lay waste to everything – to buildings and parks and streets and children and ice cream parlors, you know? So whenever I see, like, a rogue organisation willing to spend this amount of money on a mystery tech, I always assume… it’s the anti-God. End of the world kinda stuff, you know…

In the same vein as the briefcase from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, we never find out definitively what the Rabbit’s Foot actually is, but following that description, we don’t really need to. In mythologising the MacGuffin of the movie, and adding a layer of mystery about what it specifically does, the Rabbit’s Foot if anything becomes more sinister, scarier and also more fantastical. Michael Giacchino’s score and Abrams’ direction even, during Benji’s speech, visually and audibly suggest that what Benji is describing is likely to be what the Rabbit’s Foot is – some kind of futuristic, ultimate source of nuclear or destructive fusion. This too is post-Cold War in how it approaches weapons of mass destruction without a centralised country or ideology behind them – though read into the fact the Rabbit’s Foot is in China however you will.

Whereas Carnahan wanted to pit Ethan and the IMF against a real world source of antipathy, Abrams wants to capture heightened levels of 60s espionage escapism, of the Bond franchise, and contrasts the relationship between Ethan and Julia (and how it is endangered) with the nebulous, high-end machinations of Owen Davian. He could have been somewhat moustache twirling in lesser hands but Seymour Hoffman downplays him so well, he becomes a terrifying avatar of the kind of neutral, non-geopolitical supervillainy Abrams grew up enjoying. Davian is scary precisely because he is not real, yet threatens the reality of the life Ethan wants to have with Julia.

This approach serves oddly enough as an antidote to the trends of this period in Hollywood, a period which started to become obsessed not just with reimagining its greatest heroes, but recontextualising them for a post-9/11 audience.

Mission Impossible II just missed out on this, a languorous holdover from the 80’s & 90’s style of blockbuster which turned men into superheroes, but following the Twin Towers attack, audiences seemed to respond to their heroes imbued with a deeper degree of realism. Jason Bourne made his mark, Die Another Day gave way to Casino Royale, Batman & Robin gave way to Batman Begins, while others looked back instead of forward – Star Trek ’09 or Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.

This only really began to change with the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its dominance over American blockbuster cinema edging into the 2010s, but Mission Impossible III and onwards always seemed to straddle both of these fences rather deftly.


Mission: Impossible III does not enjoy the grounded, gritty reimagining we saw with Bond, or Christopher Nolan gave us with Batman, but at the same time it wants us to invest and believe in a human relationship while accepting the fantastical trappings of the Impossible Missions Force, and of the kind of hi-octane, daredevil antics Ethan Hunt displays. It doesn’t feel the need for Mission Impossible to reflect modern day anxieties or tap into a specific stylistic aesthetic, while at the same time doesn’t attempt to hark back quite as keenly to the 1960’s as de Palma’s film did, nor equally feel the need to provide a post-modern lens on the story. Mission: Impossible III simply wants to entertain and invest you in Ethan’s journey, from experienced spy who loses his protege and attempts to balance a normal life and relationship while saving the world at the same time.

In this sense, it works better as a satisfying picture than the threadbare, tired myth-making of MI2, and also the glossy theatrics of Brad Bird’s sequel Ghost Protocol, which followed in 2011. That film without a doubt takes a cue from Abrams’ picture, attempting to fuse the Alias-inspired sense of escapism (it’s even written by two more historic Alias alumni, Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec) with the more complicated mission construction of de Palma’s original, and while it’s perhaps more inventive and stylistically rewarding than MI3, it also feels much emptier. Aside from occasionally pondering loss, particularly of those at risk from the world of espionage, you would be hard pushed to explain to anyone what Ghost Protocol is actually about.

The same cannot be said of Mission Impossible III, a film which launched J.J. Abrams into the stratosphere, laid the foundations stylistically for the stronger Rogue Nation and Fallout to come, and breathed a warmth and humanity into a franchise which had plenty of style but lacked substance.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to give it another run. It might surprise you.

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