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Another mission, another impossibility


The appearance of Mission: Impossible III, the latest chapter in what looks like yet another franchise series, indicates that global warming even affects the cinema. With the first blockbuster of the season opening the first week in May, summer now begins much earlier than in the past, which means that perhaps eventually Hollywood will create an endless season of blockbusters, with no interruptions for cooler weather or anything remotely resembling intelligent cinema. Despite the usual exaggerated publicity, the many widely reported appearances of its star in all sorts of contexts outside the film, and the early speckling of exclamation marks in the reviews, the movie itself seems, if possible, even more boring and idiotic than its predecessors.

That idiocy begins with the climactic sequence, which also opens the movie, bookending a long flashback that explains the whole sorry business. Strapped to a chair in a thriller tradition that probably dates from the Victorian era, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) must sweat his way through the usual slow count to 10, while the villain, Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), holds a gun to his fiancée's head, threatening to kill her unless Cruise provides him some necessary information about something called "Rabbit's Foot." Although presumably some sort of weapon, Rabbit's Foot turns out to be the silliest and least convincing McGuffin since North By Northwest, an object that exists merely to propel a flimsy plot.

The idiocy continues in a furious fight between Cruise and Hoffman, in which they take turns throwing each through walls and windows, roll around a great deal, and generally beat the hell out of each other. Despite the ferocity of their struggle, the antagonists, one a short, muscular fellow, the other a short, pudgy fellow, look so silly and so incompetent at their task that after a while the long battle looks a bit like midget wrestling --- a choreographed, scripted, overwrought, and utterly fake contest between two diminutive opponents.

Almost nothing else in the picture makes any more sense than that opening and closing confrontation. The flashback shows Tom Cruise somewhat hesitantly accepting one of those familiar invitations to accomplish some extraordinarily complicated and entirely unlikely assignment. Retired from the famous IMF, engaged to Julia (Michelle Monaghan), Cruise expresses some initial reluctance about embarking once again on a journey into danger, stunt work, and, well, impossibility. Naturally, however, he rejoins the old gang in a complicated caper to foil the plans of the sinister Davian, and the alleged fun begins.

The rest of the movie proceeds with so much ersatz excitement that, paradoxically, it creates absolute boredom. A seemingly endless sequence of fights, shootouts, vehicle chases, explosions, precipitous falls from great heights, leaps across the canyons between skyscrapers, and so on tends to bludgeon the viewer into insensibility.

A few moments, no matter their entire absence of intelligence or meaning, enliven the whole sorry business. The obligatory high-tech digital gadgetry of the IMF, much advanced since the ancient days of the 1960s television show, now and then generates some interest. An otherwise incomprehensible kidnapping of Hoffman from a party at the Vatican, for example, features the team's ingenious manufacture of a Philip Seymour Hoffman mask --- worn by Cruise, of course --- and the hero's subsequent impersonation of the villain, suggesting some ironic identification of the two opposing figures. (I don't think it will be a hit at Halloween.)

The script's generally perfunctory attitude toward its plot and people suggests a certain contempt for both the movie and its audience. It hardly encourages anything beyond the most superficial sort of attention to the material and certainly exerts hardly any effort at making its characters at all believable, or even particularly entertaining. The shallow characterizations, the absence of convincing motivation, the laborious attempts at wit, the self-conscious dialogue all demonstrate the sterile and mechanical approach of the director and the screenwriters.

Finally, despite his triumph in Capote and at the Academy Awards, Philip Seymour Hoffman exhibits little of the intensity, power, or simple credibility of much of his previous work. His cardboard character convinces no one of his reality, and his struggles with Cruise rapidly turn comical. No doubt a handsome paycheck will negate the embarrassment he should rightly feel about the movie, the character, and his performance.

Mission: Impossible III, directed by J.J. Abrams, is playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford Cinemas, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13