What the MacGuffin? Abrams Loses Way in Mission

J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III, from a screenplay by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Mr. Abrams, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller, has become an impossible mission for a reviewer unless he’s willing to confront all the negative charisma the movie’s star, Tom Cruise, has acquired in his recent burst of publicity. Will Mr. Cruise be punished by the public for his perceived indiscretions, as Russell Crowe apparently has been? After all, Cinderella Man (2005) was a much better movie than Mission: Impossible III, and it died a miserable death at the box office. But then Mr. Cruise never hurled a telephone at anyone, as did Mr. Crowe. All Mr. Cruise did was jump up and down on Oprah’s couch, preach against psychoanalysis and painkillers for his pregnant girlfriend, Katie Holmes, and gallivant around New York on a motorcycle and a speedboat to publicize Mission: Impossible III.

Still, at the photogenically advanced age of 43, Mr. Cruise might be regarded by some as a little long in the tooth to engage even vicariously with stuntmen in the gravity- and death-defying feats that make up the kinetic third installment of a series that began in 1996 under Brian De Palma’s direction, followed by the inevitable sequel in 2000 with John Woo at the helm. The series originated in Prague, continued in Sydney, Australia, and has now been extended to Berlin, Rome and Shanghai.

What star and co-producer Mr. Cruise has added to the old formula—in collaboration with his handpicked writer-director, Mr. Abrams—is an emotionally lackluster love interest for Ethan in Michelle Monaghan’s Julia.

Julia has no easy time of it as Ethan’s one and only. When we first see her, in what is obviously an advanced stage in the narrative, she is sitting bound and gagged in a bare room with a gun pointed at her head by the still-anonymous villain, whom we later come to know as Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), international arms smuggler. He is taunting Ethan, who is also bound (but not gagged) in the same room, threatening to kill her if Ethan doesn’t tell him how he can put his hands on a fearsome instrument of terror known as the “rabbit’s foot,” this movie’s equivalent of the by now overly familiar MacGuffin—though no one in any of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies ever actually used that term to describe, for example, the secret clause of a treaty in Foreign Correspondent (1940), or the plans for new weapons in The 39 Steps (1935) and North by Northwest (1959), or the nuclear materials in Notorious (1946). The term first appeared, I believe, in Hitchcock’s book-length interview with François Truffaut in the 60’s and was identified by Hitch as the hocus-pocus pretext for all the melodramatic action.

In Mission: Impossible III, however, the term “rabbit’s foot” is repeated so frequently that the plot begins to seem more facetious than the genre allows. The term is hurriedly explained on one occasion in terms so vague and apocalyptic that I had to resist an impulse to giggle. To make good on his threat, Davian begins to count portentously from one to 10, but at the count of nine we flash back from the film’s supposedly suspenseful beginning in medias res to a party at which Ethan is preparing to ask Julia to marry him.

Mr. Hoffman doesn’t have much to do in the role of Davian except to alternate between periods of quiet authority and hysterical fury, but he makes a wonderfully overqualified villain. After all, how often can one cast a freshly minted Best Actor Oscar winner in a subordinate role? Indeed, for what little they have to do, the members of Ethan’s team of electronic wizards are all almost equally well cast, particularly Ving Rhames’ Luther and Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Declan, with Hong Kong star cutie Maggie Q adding an understated feminine presence that is all business.

As for the “romance” between Ethan and Julia, it is underwritten to the point that, were it not for the bug-eyed close-ups of Ethan and Julia when he tells her he has to go on a secret mission, we would barely know that she figures at all in his plans. As he keeps asking her to trust him and she persists in looking suspicious, he practically marries her on the spot to quiet her doubts. Along the way, we learn that when Ethan and Julia first met, she was under the impression that he had retired from active duty and was ready to settle down in a desk job.

But like Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in the Godfather series, Ethan is always being pulled back into the fray, the first time to save a female colleague and the second time to kidnap Davian from a Vatican reception, only to have him rescued by his own henchmen, who then kidnap Julia in turn—bringing us back to the brink of the situation that Ethan and Julia faced at the beginning of the movie.

The body count in the Mission: Impossible series has always been comparatively high, among both the good guys and the bad guys. I’m still mourning the death of the appealing Kristin Scott Thomas character in the first Mission: Impossible. Almost as poignant a casualty in the current sequel is Keri Russell’s Lindsey Farris, whose sacrifice leads to the unmasking of a traitor within the organization. For a long time, it is clear that either the head of the organization, John Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), or Ethan’s partner Musgrave (Billy Crudup), is the guilty party—or perhaps both.

To be fair to Mr. Cruise and his associates, the treatment of the women characters is not only chivalrous but also interestingly respectful of their courage and competence under fire. In the end, Julia actually saves Ethan’s life when it seems that he must be beyond saving. Still, I was very uncomfortable with the villain’s avant-garde technology, which enables him to plant explosive charges inside people’s heads, requiring unbelievably risky measures to save the lives of both Ethan and Julia.

My final reaction to Mission: Impossible III is one of bemused tolerance and even mild absorption in all the silliness. I could have done without the cast turning into a cheering section for Mr. Cruise’s Ethan at the end of the picture: It looked too much like a curtain call or a wrap party. I don’t say it was entirely undeserved; in fact, the way things are going right now in the industry, it could be construed as a kind of last hurrah for this kind of big-star project. I believe that even if the audiences turn out for Mission: Impossible III, there is little hope (or should I say fear?) of a Mission: Impossible IV.

Whiny Addict

Olivier Assayas’ Clean, from his own screenplay (in French and English, with English subtitles), casts Maggie Cheung as Emily Wang, a recently widowed former drug addict whose husband died from an overdose. Emily has gone into rehab to regain custody of her little boy, Lee (James Johnston), who has been awarded by the court to his grandparents, Albrecht and Rosemary Hauser (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry). Among the complications in this sudsy setup are the little boy’s hatred of Emily for giving his father the drugs that killed him, a conviction instilled in him by his unforgiving grandmother, who won’t let Emily set foot in her house for this alleged complicity in her son’s death. Fortunately for Emily, Albrecht takes a comparatively neutral position toward her and arranges for her to visit her son on a temporary basis, with the provisos that she remain “clean” from her onetime addiction and find gainful employment.

As it happens, Rosemary is dying from a terminal illness, and Albrecht realizes that he too won’t be around forever to take care of the little boy. The only suspenseful obstacle to a happy reunion of mother and son is Emily herself—lazy, self-indulgent and self-pitying to the point that she prefers to sponge on her husband’s old contacts than toil at what she considers dead-end jobs. She needs a supportive male like her late husband into whose strong arms she can helplessly fall. And since no such males are to be found in the nooks and crannies of the pop-music world that she and her husband formerly occupied, Emily frequently bursts into tears of remorse for what she never fully appreciated.

The action ranges from Vancouver to Paris to London to San Francisco, and from English to French and back to English, but Emily is a pill in any language, and I quickly tired of her seemingly endless whimpering and whining. Mr. Nolte’s Albrecht is a model of patience and sobriety by comparison, though he retains a healthy skepticism about the durability of Emily’s professed reformation. The music, such as it is, sounds to these untutored ears like a tedious mélange of rock and rap, with Ms. Cheung’s talk-sing delivery a distinct liability. Mr. Assayas has given us an international soap opera with little or no dramatic substance.

4 the Motherland

Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4, from a screenplay by Vladimir Sorokin (in Russian with English subtitles), runs on too long at 126 minutes. It starts interestingly enough with its abstract ruminations on the number four in the context of a nihilistic political satire verging on futuristic science fiction. Russia, it seems, is in deep doo-doo and equally deep denial. A very attractive young woman named Marina (Marina Vovchencko) awakens from what looks like a group orgy, gets dressed and makes her way to a late-night tavern, where she encounters two strangers at the bar, Volodya (Sergey Shnurov) and Oleg (Yuri Laguta). After exchanging cigarettes and ordering exotic vodka drinks, the three barflies begin a boozy three-way conversation that is the most engaging segment of the film.

Marina claims to have a big job advertising ingenious new Japanese inventions. We know that she’s lying, and so when Oleg claims to work in the government in charge of providing bottled water for the country’s top leaders, Volodya tops them both by saying that he participated in a human cloning program secretly begun in the time of Khrushchev and continuing to this day as a means of providing cannon fodder for the Russian war machine. Volodya is the first character to invoke the number four as a key to the cloning program.

Even before we’ve been introduced to Marina and her drinking companions, we are treated to four wild dogs prowling uneasily on a lonely windswept Moscow street and then yelping with fear when giant jackhammers seem to come down from the sky to tear up the streets. The dogs run away in a panic, and they seem to have no connection with Marina and her apparent involvement in some version of the sex industry. Marina’s lies are matched by Oleg’s: He is not a government official at all but, rather, a wholesale hog butcher. And Volodya is quite simply a piano tuner who is later arrested by the police for a long-ago and faraway murder and sent to a prison camp. He is finally seen being recruited for a clone-like army being marched off to giant passenger planes to take part in some far-off invasion. Afghanistan, perhaps?

The rest of the film concerns Marina, who learns of her sister’s death from her other, twin sisters—who look so much alike that they might well have been cloned. They live in a strange community populated mostly by old hags who chew pieces of meat to render them the right texture to make lifelike dolls. The picture finally bogs down in a seemingly endless spectacle of grossness and ghoulishness, culminating in the reappearance of wild dogs to chew up the dolls and the cackling of wild crones as they bare their chests. Comrades, the Motherland is in big trouble!

Afterthoughts

In my recent review of The Notorious Bettie Page, I neglected to mention one of the movie’s redeeming features: Austin Pendleton’s incarnation of a Stanislavskian acting guru, who amusingly endorses Bettie’s sheer inertia as a valid acting strategy.