In my mind, Mission: Impossible III exists as a gap between the aesthetic excesses of John Woo’s Hong Kong-flavored Mission: Impossible II and the immaculately constructed thrills of Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol. My memories of seeing it during its theatrical release were hazy at best. I vaguely recalled that Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt got married. I vaguely recalled that Philip Seymour Hoffman played the sleazy central villain. I vaguely recalled that I didn’t hate it. But I couldn’t have summarized the plot if you’d offered me four billion dollars and a pristine copy of the original nine-hour cut of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed.
After re-watching the film last night for the first time in six years, I think I finally understand why: it quite frankly lacks any semblance of structural elegance (possibly owing to a troubled production)–especially when compared with the franchise’s fourth entry. Ghost Protocol features a cast of dynamic, well-rounded supporting characters; M:I III features a team of walking, talking props that exist solely to fill in the empty space on either side of Tom Cruise. Ghost Protocol features a series of suspenseful set pieces that gradually escalate in intensity, building up to an edge-of-your-seat climax; M:I III attempts to compensate for its somewhat repetitive action sequences (explosion, gunshot, explosion, frantic phone call, car flip, explosion) by making Agent Hunt’s motives increasingly personal from one scene to the next (rescue protege, avenge protege, rescue wife). Most importantly, Ghost Protocol features narrative clarity: the viewer always understands the challenges our protagonists must face, from the monumental stakes (global nuclear holocaust) to the seemingly insurmountable obstacles (the heroes have been disavowed by their government, and must therefore complete their mission without any official support). M:I III features a plot so laden with ill-defined elements that it becomes nearly incomprehensible; I frequently found myself asking basic questions that should have been addressed as far back as the second draft of the script: “What are the Big Bad’s long term goals?” “How large is his organization, and how many resources does it have at its disposal?” “What exactly is the Rabbit’s Foot?”
(I know, I know. The Rabbit’s Foot is obviously meant to be a MacGuffin. Like the wine bottles full of uranium in Hitchcock’s Notorious, it could have been literally anything as long as it moved the story forward. The difference is that Hitchcock was wise enough to refrain from constantly calling attention to that fact.)
Director J.J. Abrams is a competent enough craftsman (his excellent work on the Star Trek reboot is evidence of that), but even he could have done little to elevate such a fundamentally flawed screenplay. His visual flair simply cannot overcome the undeniable absence of storytelling polish. That is why Ghost Protocol will endure as an action-adventure classic on par with Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Castle of Cagliostro, while Mission: Impossible III will fade into obscurity before even Woo’s delightfully silly second installment.
[Originally written November 5, 2012.]