Alias Tom Cruise 

High-octane Mission never self-destructs

Tom Cruise's onscreen presence has forever been wrapped up in salesmanship. Whether he's portraying a sports agent, a military lawyer or a motivational misogynist, he's always essentially making sales pitches based on his sincerity and confidence. Even as a cocktail shaker, pool hustler or horny high schooler, he's pushing a product called "Tom Cruise," and it's been one of Hollywood's most successful brands.

As he's gotten older and more outspoken, however, his ever-present intensity has started undercutting his once-boyish charms. People aren't so eagerly buying what he's selling anymore. Fortunately, any desperation in Tom Cruise's cinematic persona only heightens the tension of Mission: Impossible III. The high-velocity spy saga not only outruns and out-muscles any other Mission: Impossible movie or Tom Clancy adaptation, it overpowers every James Bond film in the last 20 years.

The opening scene has Cruise's Ethan Hunt character trying to negotiate as a vicious arms dealer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) holds a gun to the head of Ethan's fiancee, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). "Talk to me! We can talk ... like gentlemen," Ethan breathes, depending on his spiel to out-bluff and outmaneuver Hoffman's wrathful, merciless villain. Ethan loses his cool and suddenly seems human for the first time in the franchise.

We then flash back to Ethan's engagement party with Julia, who's so surrounded by loving friends, family and pets that we brace ourselves for tragedy to come. Julia believes Ethan works as a drudge for the Department of Transportation and not as a secret agent for the "Impossible Mission Force," and their relationship makes Mission: Impossible III more than an exercise in intricate caper scenes. Director/co-writer J.J. Abrams created Jennifer Garner's spy-chick drama "Alias," which also played on the tension between personal and professional lives. Job vs. home becomes fraught if you work for and compete with people who have license to kill.

Abrams employs every trick he's learned over five seasons of "Alias," which turn out to be more than just showing the hero sprinting flat-out, or concocting nifty gadgets like the film's magnetic hand grenades. Abrams knows when to drop the audience into the middle of the action and how to heighten suspense by leaving key moments to the imagination -- we don't even see one of the film's major heights. He must be a huge fan of the "Is it safe?" scene from Marathon Man. As on his other show, "Lost," Abrams appreciates how to tease out a mystery.

The plot concerns the pursuit of a dangerous, enigmatic item called "the Rabbit's Foot" that intrigues us even though we don't really know what it is. In essence, the film links its big set pieces -- including an elaborate switcheroo inside Vatican City -- with Ethan trying to protect first a hostage protege (Keri Russell of "Felicity") and, later, Julia herself. Hoffman's character specializes in intimidation and preying on his opponent's Achilles' heels. He might be slumming after his Best Actor Oscar win, but his raging, remorseless work here qualifies Hoffman as the Gert "Goldfinger" Frobe of his generation.

Even when you can't quite discern what's going on in various chases and shootouts, the momentum and rhythms of the editing propel you forward. The sequences usually get punctuated with outlandish money shots, such as a windmill chopping a helicopter in half, or a bridge exploding directly in front of the heroes' car. Abrams even makes Mission: Impossible's stupidest conceit -- those rubber masks that, when donned, miraculously become identical to real people -- exciting and almost plausible.

Cruise isn't necessarily likeable and never seems truly relaxed, even in his supposedly tender, downtime scenes with Monaghan. But Mission: Impossible III takes advantage of the actor's disconcerting determination. Concocting one particularly risky scheme, Ethan scribbles on windows like a deranged mathematician and tries to persuade his teammates to attempt a literally impossible mission. Even if you'd prefer a more casually charismatic leading man than Cruise, Mission: Impossible III has such a tight script and fast space that practically anyone could play Ethan Hunt -- Ryan Seacrest, Denny Hastert -- without slowing things down.



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