I'm gonna hurt her. I'm gonna make her bleed, and cry, and call out your name.
We live in a world where, for better or worse, franchises rule the day. Making an original piece of work to expose your ideas to the world is tough, more so when you can earn better money directing the next Iron Man or James Bond. The end result is usually a formulaic experience, marred by the constraints of an existing idea. And yet, ever so often, the framework is used to create something that elevates beyond the source material.
Take the Mission: Impossible film series. The first installment (from 1996) was a decent spy thriller starring young superstar Tom Cruise. For number two (2000), Hong Kong director John Woo took the reigns, using the movie to showcase his signature style of slick action and slow motion doves, people sliding over rails, in slow motion, brandishing twin guns, and more doves, majestic white doves. It was style over substance. After a pause of many years, 2006 saw Mission: Impossible 3 hit theaters, this time by J.J. Abrams – fresh off the worldwide success of Lost.
The initial skepticism towards a director skipping media (from tv to cinema) seems oh, so quaint right now. Because M:I3 is perhaps the best spy flick ever made. The reason for this is a little hard to pinpoint. To be sure, the plot is perfectly decent and offers plenty of thrills, twists and surprises. The characterization is good. The action scenes make sense. But many other films tick those boxes too. What makes this so special?
I hesitate to say Philip Seymour Hoffman, if only because it's both a redundant statement that he's fantastic and I'll make a caricature out of myself. But damn, he's irresistible as cocksure arms dealer Owen Davian. Every scene where he butts heads with Ethan Hawke, and there are many, explodes with tension. Davian revels in the hurt he brings, and states so matter-of-factly. At the same time, he's not some invincible supervillain. Before the halfway mark, Ethan has already played him for a fool. The cat and mouse-game feels real, and that makes it exciting.
For Ethan, the stakes couldn't be higher. It's not so much the world he's saving (through a MacGuffin called the 'rabbit's foot', a thing of such unimportance the movie deliberately doesn't even mention what it does), but his newly found family life. At odds with a creature like Davian, who likes to play it mean and personal, that's a scary situation.
Abrams' influence should not be understated. His direction is confident and exciting, always putting the stakes up front and making sure we understand the implications. In his hands, a basic spy plot becomes furiously interesting. Plenty of others in the genre offer daring Vatican break-ins and helicopter extractions, but only M:I3 has the guts to start with Ethan's wife unceremoniously shot in the head after a grueling countdown, only to leave you gagging to learn what happens next until the very end.
Doing work-for-hire for a major franchise can sap the soul out of the end result, but in the hands of a director as competent as Abrams it does something else: it can transform into its pinnacle.