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MI:3 on cruise control

By Lady Liberty
web posted May 8, 2006

Mission: Impossible III

** out of ****

Mission: Impossible IIII thought that the first Mission: Impossible movie was something increasingly rare from Hollywood these days: a complex and clever film that actually required an attention span and a triple-digit IQ to appreciate (I must have thought something less of the first sequel since I can't, for the life of me, recall anything about it). I had hopes that this third installment — unofficially considered the first of this year's summer blockbusters — might be at least somewhat worthy of its predecessor. Unfortunately, I suspect it takes more after the second film than it all too obviously doesn't much resemble the first.

Mission: Impossible III opens with a very disturbing scene. IMF Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is tied to a chair. Facing him is his beautiful wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan) who is bound, gagged, and utterly terrified by the gun held to her head by the nefarious Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Davian demands Hunt tell him where he can find "the rabbit's foot." Desperate, Hunt promises Davian anything if he'll only let Julia go. Just as time runs out, we're propelled into the recent past where we see...

Agent Ethan Hunt is now an apparently kinder, gentler version of his earlier self. He's retired from field work and is working as a trainer for up and coming IMF agents. He's even engaged to marry a woman named Julia who he clearly adores and with whom he seems poised to gain the family he's long been missing. But during his engagement party, he receives a contact from his boss, John Musgrave (Billy Crudup), he can't ignore.

According to the information he gets from Musgrave, IMF Agent Lindsey Ferris (Keri Russell) has been taken captive by the mysterious arms dealer, Owen Davian. Davian has long been a target of the IMF, and it seems Agent Ferris got too close for comfort. In an effort to retrieve whatever information it was she found, the IMF is determined to launch a rescue mission. It offers a place on the team to Hunt out of sensitivity to the fact Ferris is one of his most successful trainees.

His sense of personal responsibility for Ferris won't let him refuse, and so Hunt tells Julia he's headed to Houston on business and promptly joins the hurriedly assembled rescue team. Other team members include the familiar Luther Strickell (Ving Rhames) and newcomers Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen (Maggie Q), who each offer their own specialties to the planning process as the group heads to Germany to save the kidnapped girl.

During the course of events that quickly unfold, the team determines it can only realize true success if it goes after Davian himself. This, of course, leads the team members into highly unapproved territory, and Musgrave is more than a little concerned. Musgrave's boss, John Brassel (Laurence Fishburne) doesn't bother with concern. He's going to take action to ensure the team doesn't go its own way! But when Julia is taken hostage by Davian, Hunt's focus doesn't even touch on whether or not he ought to do what he's doing. He's just determined to find and rescue his wife, whatever the cost may be.

Tom Cruise isn't a bad actor. In fact, in a movie like this (loaded with action sequences as opposed to especially dramatic moments), he's actually quite good. His personal antics of the last year, however, make it difficult to see him purely as Agent Ethan Hunt. It gets even harder to do when he shares the screen with Michelle Monaghan, who bears some resemblance to Cruise's current real-life paramour (the very young and apparently very impressionable Katie Holmes).

The most gripping parts of the film occur when Philip Seymour Hoffman is onscreen. Hoffman takes the character of a very bad guy and makes him less evil than he is utterly amoral. Somehow, that makes Davian seem all the more frightening. And when Davian determines to fight back, Hoffman's voice and demeanor are still quiet and understated, but with an undercurrent of sadism that's truly terrifying.

The supporting cast is largely two-dimensional since all we really see of them is the bare minimum necessary for them to play their respective roles. Each does a perfectly fine job, but there's little screen time that let's us see if any of them could do better than that. Meanwhile, Ving Rhames' character is saddled with a few moments of comedic relief that are utterly out of character and jarring in context. No actor, no matter how good, could possibly have delivered those lines with anything resembling anything but the silly slapstick it is.

Director J.J. Abrams exhibits a sure hand with action sequences in particular, and the special effects are at least as good as advertised. Those who like it when things go boom and guns go bang are going to have plenty to watch and enjoy in Mission: Impossible III (you'll want to pay special attention to a very well edited helicopter chase scene that features a field of power-generating windmills). The editing and sets are also quite good. In the case of the latter, scenes set behind the Vatican walls are particularly impressive. The screenplay (written by Abrams in partnership with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci — who also wrote a number of TV's Alias episodes), however, has some real problems not least of which is the fact the storyline is relatively simplistic and utterly predictable from start to finish.

Mission: Impossible III isn't necessarily an unsuitable start to the summer season, but it's disappointing on many levels. It's got plenty of action and some suspense, yet I found my mind wandering and wondering when the movie would finally be over (it's just a little over two hours long). And when I left the theatre, my thoughts immediately moved on to other things rather than mulling over and appreciating all I'd just seen. Neither of those things make for a particularly strong recommendation for this film.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Mission: Impossible III is rated PG-13 for "intense sequences of frenetic violence and menace, disturbing images, and some sensuality." That rating is probably just about right. There are some pictures that are entirely too much for young children (close-ups of the face of a dead agent are particularly disturbing), and some of the more suspenseful scenes are likely to be well over the top for little ones. The average 13 year-old (particularly if he's a boy) isn't going to have a problem watching this movie, however, and many adults will enjoy themselves too — assuming they're there for the thrill ride and not for anything else.

An Unfinished Life

** 1/2 out of ****

An Unfinished LifeI rarely see movies like this one because I'm not typically all that fond of them. Add to that the fact that Jennifer Lopez stars in it, and you can pretty much assume I won't be buying a ticket. And you'd have been right: I didn't. But this weekend, I sat down to watch a rental with a friend chose what we'd watch, and An Unfinished Life was among them. My only regret now is that I didn't see it sooner.

The "unfinished life" of the title belongs to a young rodeo competitor, Griffin Gilkyson. Along with the memories of his too-short life, Griffin leaves behind his father, Einar (Robert Redford) and his pregnant wife, Jean (Jennifer Lopez). Neither has fared well since Griffin's death. Einar can't stop mourning, and Jean meanders from one abusive relationship to the next, her 11 year-old daughter in tow.

Jean finally reaches her limit in a small town in Iowa when her current live-in boyfriend, Gary Watson (Damian Lewis) hits her one too many times. With nowhere else to go, Jean takes daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) and heads for the rundown Wyoming ranch of the father-in-law she hasn't seen in more than a decade. Her fears are realized on arrival when Einar scarcely acknowledges the pair telling them only to leave.

Literally at the end of her resources, Jean introduces Einar to Griff. Largely on the strength of his surprise at a granddaughter he didn't know he had, Einar agrees — clearly against his better judgment — to let them stay for a few weeks.

Jean heads into town early the next morning to find work so she can save enough to leave as soon as possible. Griff, meanwhile, wakes to find herself alone in the house. That's because Einar is caring for an injured ranch hand, Mitch Bradley (Morgan Freeman), with whom he's obviously shared a long term friendship. Mitch lets Einar know that it's good he's getting the opportunity to know his grandchild — and that it's even nice to see Jean come home again — but Einar is far from convinced.

Meanwhile, Jean finds a job working for a local greasy spoon owned by a woman named Nina (Cameron Manheim). When she goes to report her abusive ex-boyfriend to the local authorities, she also finds the attractive — and single — Sheriff Crane Curtis (Josh Lucas). But neither her fledgling friendship with her new boss nor the possibilities of a relationship with the sheriff can overcome the hostility Einar feels for her as he blames her for the death of his only child.

In the end, it takes Jean's fears of Gary, the intervention of Mitch and Crane, the appearance of a dangerous grizzly bear, and the shared love for a child to begin putting some of the pieces of these other unfinished lives back together.

Robert Redford has aged gracefully and stepped into roles like the one of Einar Gilkyson with every bit of the skill and charisma he had when he played handsome leading men. He's entirely the cantankerous and bitter old man here, and yet has the skill to show us the grievously wounded father lying just beneath the facade he's so carefully erected. Morgan Freeman is quite good as a man who has every right to be bitter himself, but who teaches everyone a lesson (except, apparently, Einar) with his graceful acceptance of his lot in life. Jennifer Lopez, while certainly not reaching the level of the performances from Redford or Freeman, is adequate.

Damian Lewis is suitably menacing, and Josh Lucas is just fine as a small town sheriff whose limited law enforcement skills are less emphasized than is his hometown-boy ability to smooth over various and sundry altercations. Camryn Manheim, though given a character with far more depth than there is time to explore, is also good. Next to Redford, though, the real star of the film is the delightful Becca Gardner who takes on the character of the conflicted, confused, and searching Griff with sheer brilliance.

Director Lasse Hallström does a terrific job at keeping the film subtle when it needs to be, and unflinching when it must be more blunt. The scenery is spectacular (though ostensibly in Wyoming, the movie was actually filmed in British Columbia), and the role played by various and sundry animals (not the least of which is a wayward grizzly) is deftly managed. The editing is almost unnoticeable — which, in a film like this one, is perfect. And the screen play is well written, allowing characters to speak naturally and to seem all the more realistic as a result.

An Unfinished Life is a well-crafted movie. Even more to my surprise, I enjoyed it. Though it didn't have the impact of the very best movies, I do find myself recalling moments of it fondly, and am forced to admit that I'm truly glad I finally got the chance to see it.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: An Unfinished Life is rated PG-13 for "some violence, including domestic abuse, and language." This really isn't a movie for young children, or even younger teens in that its focus is on some very adult issues. Domestic violence and the rifts in families coming from fear or bitterness are very adult topics, and this movie overflows with those things. Older teens, though, and adults of all ages will almost certainly find at least one thing here to which they can relate — and from which they'll learn. I recommend An Unfinished Life for those of about age 15 and up, and I'm pleased to do so.

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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