Just released on video, this third entry in Cruise's signature action franchise is comprehensible primarily as a two-hour testimonial to the many ways in which its star loves women. The plot, essentially, is that an evil arms dealer named Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes captive a female secret agent (Keri Russell) whom Cruise's character, Ethan Hunt, had trained and loves "like a little sister." Ethan first conducts a rescue operation, and subsequently takes revenge on Davian by taking him captive. Davian escapes, however, and continues the cycle of escalating abductions by kidnapping Ethan's wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), necessitating yet another rescue.
In between hostage-takings, we're treated to a series of scenes emphasizing Ethan's marriageability. Early on, there's the party where Ethan and Julia announce their engagement. (After Ethan elicits yawns by droning on about his cover vocation as a traffic analyst for the Virginia Department of Transportation, two female guests nonetheless gush over his exceptional eligibility: "I'd marry him." "I would, too.") We later watch Ethan impulsively marry Julia, a nurse, at her hospital, with plastic novelty rings serving as wedding bands and a convenient supply closet briefly substituting for a honeymoon suite. The movie ends with Julia--who's just learned that Ethan does not, in fact, study traffic for a living--meeting Ethan's fellow agents on the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), and his suggesting he may quit the biz for the quieter compensations of nuptial bliss. The last shot is of Ethan and Julia walking away, hand in hand, as his IMF colleagues burst into fervent, inexplicable applause, with Ving Rhames, in particular, raising the roof as if he'd just scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.
There is a plot thread involving more typical spy-movie fodder--national security, the arms trade, the possible end of the world--but Mi:III treats it with an indifference bordering on contempt. The villain, Davian, is trying to sell something called the "rabbit's foot" to some unsavory figures. I write "something" because the movie takes ostentatious delight in never telling us what the rabbit's foot is. A scientist theorizes that it might be the "anti-God," a substance or device so dangerous it could end all life on Earth, before confessing, "No, I don't have any idea what it is. I was just speculating." By the end, it seems clear that it is some kind of biohazardous material (it is, after all, kept in a container conspicuously marked "biohazard"), but the film still taunts us puckishly: When Ethan asks his superior (Lawrence Fishburne) what the rabbit's foot is, he responds, "Promise me you'll stay, I'll tell you." He doesn't. This is a MacGuffin eager to advertise its MacGuffinhood.
Thanks to the resolute vagueness of the international crisis in question, Mi:III has no real animating idea, at least apart from the lengths to which Ethan will go for his women. To a degree unseen since the cinematic arts lost Andy Warhol, this is a movie that isn't about anything, a handful of stunt set pieces tied together with a scarcely rudimentary stab at narrative. You could shuffle the deck, re-deal them out in another order, and the movie would hardly suffer at all. (It might actually benefit.) Even the best sequence in the movie suffers from a casual nonsensicality. Ethan has to infiltrate a party at the Vatican in order to nab Davian as he sells the rabbit's foot. In order to catch the unknown buyers, too, he decides not only to capture Davian but then to impersonate him, with the help of one of those voice-chip-enhanced rubber masks the series has gotten such mileage out of. The conceit leads to some enjoyable moments watching Ethan pretend to be Davian (which is really Hoffman pretending to be Cruise), but it's forgotten almost as soon as it's deployed. Ethan's IMF team doesn't see the buyers, and expends no effort looking for them: They were merely a fleeting rationale for his high-tech dress-up. More befuddling still, the briefcase which Davian picked up at the party contains not money but information about the heavily guarded location of the rabbit's foot, which Davian, contrary to earlier assertions, does not have. How exactly it can be that Davian is selling something he doesn't possess is a level of coherence the movie can't be bothered with. Whatever, dude: These are just bad guys, okay?
A subsequent scene in which Ethan attempts to steal the rabbit's foot from the Shanghai office building where it's kept is more haphazard still. Prior to the theft we're offered a meticulous cataloguing of the guards and security measures certain to be encountered. "From a thief's point of view, this is a worst case scenario," explains one member of Ethan's team. "Langley was a cakewalk compared to this," adds another, referring to the signature heist of the first Mission Impossible film. Ethan's entry into the building is dramatic enough, a Tarzanlike swing from the roof of an adjacent skyscraper. And then--nothing. Rather than accompany Ethan on his daring burglary, we wait outside the building with the rest of the IMF crew for a few minutes' worth of errant dialogue, until Ethan comes crashing out a window, rabbit's foot in hand. This particular mission may not have proven impossible, but it was invisible; all we got was prelude and postscript. It's as if someone decided to tell the Lord of the Rings story from the perspective of a few hobbits who stayed behind in the Shire the whole time.
Hoffman is compelling as the villain Davian, even if the contours of his villainy are somewhat obscure. Rather than ham the role up in typical evil-mastermind style, Hoffman trims it down to its simple, vicious essence. When he threatens Ethan--"You have a wife? Girlfriend? 'Cause ... I'm gonna find her and I'm gonna hurt her"--it's chillingly devoid of theatricality, as if he were berating a telephone operator for a dropped call. At another moment he manages the opposite effect, imbuing the most casual gesture--lifting a cocktail from a server's tray--with palpable malice. Though his screen time is sorely limited, it lingers, Harry Lime-like, over the proceedings. The rest of the supporting cast fares less well. With the exception of Fishburne, who has several of the movie's better lines (after describing Davian to subordinates as a "goddamned invisible man," he cautions, "Wells, not Ellison, in case you want to be cute"), the other performers aren't much more than mirrors held up to Cruise's Ethan to help capture his perfection--ideal husband, loyal "big brother," trusted friend, daring superspy.
This is of course typical of star-driven moviemaking (especially, as in this case, when the star is also the producer), but there are moments in Mi:III when the implicit vanity of the endeavor borders on creepy. There is, again, the film's aggressive subtext (Tom Cruise loves women!), which dovetails so neatly with the star's p.r. offensive over the past year-plus. But that's hardly the only way in which his on- and off-screen personas have begun to merge. Cruise has never been a terribly natural performer--at least not in roles that ask more of him than The Grin--but his effort has always been above reproach. Whether juking in his skivvies in Risky Business or having the world's most entertainingly spastic nervous breakdown in Jerry Maguire or weeping/praying/raging at his father's bedside in Magnolia, Cruise has never been afraid of overdoing it. (Some of his scenes with Hoffman in Mi:III faintly resemble Magnolia, with Cruise giving it all he's got while Hoffman watches on, in relative quiet, relying on a more subtle toolbox of actorly effects.) Even when Cruise has overshot the mark, his obvious commitment has generally given him a certain power. When he's angry--as, for example, when Davian threatens Julia's life--his eyes bore holes. When he pitches woo, it's as if he's memorized tomes of technique. When he runs, he may not run faster than other actors, but he certainly runs harder: Every sinew threatens to burst from his body; his jaw muscles alone do more work than most people's legs.
But after the Oprah Incident (and the Lauer Lecture and any number of other recent off-screen episodes), Cruise's fierce will to persuade seems a bit less appealing. For years, his cinematic technique has contained a certain amount of Jumping On Oprah's Sofa. But once we've witnessed it in "real" life--the ridiculous overstatement, the furious need for us to accept his version of the truth--whatever credibility it once held onscreen begins to ebb. Watching his performance in, say, Magnolia today, it seems not merely overdone but false, his pantomimed rage and despair the flip side of his announced bliss on Oprah. Certain major stars reach a moment when their own persona begins consuming every role they play. (Yeah, I'm talking about you, Nicholson.) Cruise's public scenes over the last 18 months have hastened that moment, and have made the persona he can't escape a considerably less likeable one. Good news then, that as of last week he and longtime production partner Paula Wagner are taking over the United Artists label for MGM. Vain, willful, stubborn, driven, unable to brook dissent--if that doesn't sound to you like a studio boss, I don't know what would.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.