After the colossal misfire that was Mission: Impossible II, the series needed a serious reboot, and in 2006, it finally got one, this time with lens-flare maestro J.J. Abrams at the helm of a tight, focused, interesting story that reframed what the IMF is all about, reframed what Ethan Hunt is all about, reframed what the IMF teams are all about, and what a Mission: Impossible movie is all about. The result was a resounding success that for many people—myself included—the Mission: Impossible kind of feels like the series never really starts until its third installment. This movie is as different from the first two as those first two are different from each other. But the big difference here is that Mission Impossible: III sets an overall tone and level of execution, and a working blend of action and intrigue, that we stick with for the next two movies. And, one imagines, for whatever other installments might follow.
The story begins uniquely, in media res, with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, for you newcomers out there) tied to a chair, the prisoner of arms dealer Owen Davian (played to the hilt by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman in the way that only he could play the villain of a spy movie). Also in the room is a woman tied to another chair, with tape across her mouth and a gun to her head. Davian wants something from Hunt. He knows this woman matters to Hunt. And he will blow her brains out if Hunt does not give him what he wants. You know how in a lot of movies the bad guy says something, but you can just tell that the tone of the movie will never really allow the bad guy to follow through on his threats? Yeah, that’s not the case here. Within a few moments of super-tense dialogue, we are convinced that Davian will kill this woman. Hunt can’t get out of this situation. And he can’t give Davian what he wants, either. Watching Hunt go through every play he has, every range of emotion he can muster, sets the bar for the rest of the movie, and we know that whatever happens next, it’s all going to lead back to this incredible, impossible moment.
From there, the movie rewinds to the beginning, and Hunt, we learn, is actually retired from field service. Now he trains at the IMF, which has allowed him to settle down with a nurse named Julia (Michelle Monaghan), though she does not know the true nature of his work. Shortly before they can marry, though, Hunt gets a priority call; one of the agents he trained has gone missing, and Hunt is needed to find her and rescue her. The rescue succeeds, but the agent dies anyway, and in a manner that suggests whatever bad guy the IMF is up against this time, this person is not kidding around. Hunt manages to capture Davian in a great face-swap switcheroo sting, but Davian escapes in spectacular fashion shortly afterwards. As is often the case in a Mission: Impossible movie, there are lots of suspicions thrown around as to where people’s loyalties lie. Stalwart computer expert Luther Stickle (Ving Rhames) returns, and we also get the introduction of IMF technician Benji Dunn, played by Simon Pegg with such delightful awkwardness that they brought him back for the next two films.
Our heroes must carry out another high-intensity infiltration to steal a Macguffin for Davian, and finally, it all comes back to the scene in the chairs, with Davian holding all the cards, Hunt out of options, and Julia between them, suddenly caught up in Ethan’s secret world, about to catch a bullet in the brain over something she does not understand. At first, Hunt’s professionalism tries to alter the scenario, but Davian is too good for that. Then Hunt tries to lie, then to bluff, but Davian is too good for that, too. And then Hunt hits rock bottom and pleads, and Davian is still too good for that. To discuss how this scene ends would ruin the movie, but it is easily my moment of truth not just for this Mission: Impossible movie, but for the whole series. Ethan Hunt is the kind of guy who always has a way through an impossible problem. And this is the first time he has no easy out, and suddenly, we get just how high the stakes can be when they’re personal. The thing Davian is after is never defined; surely it’s some device that can cause global catastrophe, but Hunt has tracked down so many of these, you get the feeling that even he doesn’t really care what it is, just that Davian doesn’t get his hands on it. But Julia, now she is important. And suddenly, we see why Hunt retired in the first place. And, by the end of the movie, why he can never retire again.
Hunt, for all his skill and ability, cannot go it alone. That’s the thing with Mission: Impossible. It is always a team effort. And even though Ethan Hunt is always the star of the show, here, we see in the most immediate terms possible, that life isn’t meant to be a solo endeavor. Depending on others is a liability, sure. But being there for others, that’s the thing that makes it all worthwhile.