ONE-HOUR TV has been good to writer-director J.J. Abrams, good enough to get him the job of sustaining "Mission: Impossible," an action movie franchise that also began as one-hour TV. Is it any wonder that the Tom Cruise-starring "Mission: Impossible III" plays like two consecutive one-hour TV shows, one sort of standard, the other stocked with excitement?
Fortunately for the film, and for us, the second hour is the best one, as "M:i:III," as it's known in studio shorthand, ramps up the pace and our level of involvement. Abrams, best known as the co-creator of "Alias" and "Lost," has come up with a solidly crafted entertainment, a diversion that really diverts once it gets down to business.
Though "M:i:III's" first hour has its share of action sequences that must have cost the Earth, it can't completely shake a pro forma feeling, the idea that its main job is to set the scene for the next episode, as it were. In fact, it almost seems as if Abrams and co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (previously employed, as were many of "M:i:III's" creative personnel, on "Alias") are aware of this difficulty and have taken dramatic steps to counteract it.
What they've done is open "M:i:III" with a flash-forward to the film's best, most nail-biting scene, a pivotal turning point in the action that certainly grabs our attention.
The risk of starting with your best scene, of course, is that it makes a lot of what comes after seem weak by comparison. But the upside bet, that the sequence's intensity will keep audiences more or less patiently hooked through a big, long stretch of exposition, is what Abrams and company need to happen and what pretty much takes place.
What makes the scene in question, a confrontation between Cruise's secret agent Ethan Hunt and the film's villain, extremely dangerous black marketeer Owen Davian, so effective is the picture-making performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the bad-guy role.
Good-versus-evil films often rise or fall on the strength of the evildoer. In the Oscar-winning Hoffman, who isn't counting "Twister" when he says he's never done an action film before, "M:i:III" has a spectacular actor who delivers deadpan some of the most unnerving speeches in villainy's history. Hoffman is so proficient in this role that he just about overmatches Cruise and makes the wait until he speaks again in the second half of the film hard to endure with any patience.
Most of the first hour, however, is concerned with establishing Cruise's Hunt as a master of the secret agent's dark arts as well as someone who thinks he can both save the world and have a normal romantic life with a partner ignorant of what he really does. Not quite.
In fact, agent Hunt, who everyone thinks studies traffic patterns for the Department of Transportation, can't even get through his engagement party to the perky Julia ("Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's" Michelle Monaghan) without getting that familiar call about a mission he just might choose to accept.
Hunt, it turns out, has been out of the hunt for a while, training new agents. His fetching star pupil, Lindsay (is it only me, or does "Felicity's" Keri Russell look like Cruise's ex, Nicole Kidman?), has fallen into the thuggish hands of a group of Berlin bad boys. Hunt's handler Musgrave (Billy Crudup) and big boss John Brassel (Laurence Fishburne) think he's the guy to lead the rescue.
Asking his fiancee to trust him, Hunt gathers his team of operatives (Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q). He also learns about the mysterious and extremely unpleasant "rabbit's foot," an end-of-the-world-type weapon sometimes called "the anti-god." Not the kind of thing you'd want to fall into the wrong hands.
In Berlin and during follow-up action in Vatican City, Hunt and his cohorts do all kinds of running and jumping but very little standing still. Encrypted microdots and explosive charges heedlessly implanted in people's heads do their worst, and more people jump through glass windows than you can imagine.
It's not until the second hour, however, when the action moves to Shanghai, the deeply evil Owen Davian does something wretched and Hunt has 48 hours to accede to his demands, that we really begin to get involved in the story. Because Hoffman is so good at imparting offbeat but believable menace to his psychopathic character, the film's tension goes up a critical notch when he is on the scene.
As for Cruise, the characters he plays can be difficult to humanize, but the man does his own impressive stunts, here including getting blown across a bridge by an explosion and jumping off an 80-foot building, and that has to count for something. His gaze may be as high-gloss as the high-tech machinery he fools around with, but under Abrams' proficient direction he gets the job done, and that is mission impossible enough for any man.
`Mission: Impossible III'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of frenetic violence and menace, disturbing images and some sensuality
A Paramount Pictures release. Director J.J. Abrams. Screenplay Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, J.J. Abrams, based on the TV series created by Bruce Geller. Producers Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner. Director of photography Dan Mindel. Editors Mary Jo Markey, Maryann Brandon. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
In general release.