The summer movie season always has an official beginning, even if it gets nudged back a little earlier each year (by 2016, we’ll probably be watching The Mighty Thor IV on President’s Day). What it no longer has is any real end. The blossom-of-gasoline explosions, the crushed metal, the zippy seamless mutability of a world gone CGI, the heroes who, if not Superman, are always super men — what it all adds up to is Hollywood’s endless summer, the ride that never stops.
And yet, once again, it begins. In Mission: Impossible III, Tom Cruise, as the no-fear, no-sweat IMF agent Ethan Hunt, scurries across a freeway bridge that’s been blasted to smithereens and, using nothing but a machine gun, faces down a rogue fighter jet as it launches missiles right at him. He swings from one skyscraper to the next, skittering off the face of a glass pyramid and shooting a guard in mid-slide, landing at the roof’s edge with a perfectly understated and in-control ”Okay!” He sprints through the streets of Shanghai in a black T-shirt that makes him look like the fittest movie star ever and, more arrestingly, strolls quietly into empty rooms, gathering the film’s tension around the wary, coiled urgency of his stare.
But wait. It’s impossible to watch M:I-3 without asking: Do we still, you know, like Tom Cruise? Last year, the actor’s tone-deaf offscreen antics appeared to break up his 20-year love affair with the media, and maybe the public, too. Yet his Great Gossip World Stumble wasn’t really a violation of his star quality; it was that very quality taken to extremes. His big mistake on Oprah, for example, was using his springy energy and cocksure grin, his ”spontaneous” jock-in-front-of-the-bedroom-mirror gestures, his whole spirit of jet-propelled certainty to proclaim romantic devotion — a feeling that by nature is quiet and reflective. Forgetting the lesson of Jerry Maguire (”You complete me”), Cruise acted like a guy who completes himself. It’s not that he gave a bad performance but that he gave the wrong performance at the wrong time.
M:I-3, a gratifyingly clever, booby-trapped thriller that has enough fun and imagination and dash to more than justify its existence, seems purposely designed to counteract that gaffe. This time, Agent Hunt is a bit of a softie — or, at least, a guy driven by devotion to the woman in his life. The film opens, rather startlingly, with our hero handcuffed to a chair, as the villain, played with casual slovenly menace by Philip Seymour Hoffman, points a gun at Hunt’s bound-and-gagged wife (Michelle Monaghan) and promises to blow her brains out unless Hunt coughs up the Rabbit’s Foot, the MacGuffin of a secret weapon that everyone is after. That creepy flash-forward sets the film’s stakes — this time, in other words, it’s personal — and Cruise, shaking off the karma of his Oprah victory dance, plays Hunt with a keen and watchful intensity, as a knight of espionage doing what he does for love.
I’m happy to report that he also still likes to put on a rubber face. After an overly long exposition in which Hunt tries to rescue a kidnapped agent (Keri Russell) with a time-released micro-bomb implanted in her head, the real amusement begins, as Hunt and his team infiltrate Vatican City, where they’re out to capture Owen Davian (Hoffman), an arms dealer who, for the right price, will sell any toxic weapon to any jihad. Ving Rhames’ Luther is back, trading barbs about marriage with Hunt, and this time the crew includes surly Jonathan Rhys Meyers and slinky Maggie Q, who has a high-maintenance hauteur. Billy Crudup, as the point man back at headquarters, comes off like Cruise’s pasty-faced academic doppelgänger.
The director, J.J. Abrams, is the co-creator and executive producer of Lost and Alias, with their ropy narrative games, and for a good stretch he does a craftier job than Brian De Palma or John Woo did in the first two Mission: Impossibles of reviving the cornball clockwork pleasures of an ingenious trip-wire deception. As Hunt, on a computerized pulley, enters the Vatican, then poses as a priest, then puts on a latex mask to impersonate Davian, only to be forced at the last moment to fake a restroom coughing fit before his Davian voice is electronically activated, M:I-3 stoked my fondest memories of the original TV show’s daisy-chain-of-technology suspense.
There’s nothing old-fashioned, however, about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance. Most great actors, when handed the role of a blockbuster villain, will ham it up with style, but Hoffman makes Davian a grubby banal monster. When he warns Hunt that he’ll find his wife or girlfriend and hurt her, really hurt her, he shakes his head in mock shame, as if making a sorrowful confession at his weekly meeting of Sadists Anonymous. I wish the second half of M:I-3 were as playfully tricky as the first half; the movie builds to some standard, if breathlessly timed, rescue heroics. Yet its central duel lingers: Hoffman the sullen misanthrope, itching to kill, and Cruise the agent-protector, saving the one he loves with aerobic earnestness.