Maybe it wasn't planned that way, but the Mission: Impossible film series has turned into a showcase for what its directors do best. The first entry had Brian De Palma's exquisitely choreographed physics-in-motion action setpieces; the second had John Woo's operatic confrontations between good and evil, though sadly little of the drama that accompanies his best work. Mission: Impossible III is the big-screen directorial debut of Felicity and Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams, who instantly establishes it as an Abrams movie by opening not with a bang, but with the literal whimper of Tom Cruise, tied to a chair and watching arms dealer Philip Seymour Hoffman threaten the woman Cruise loves. He's a likeable person placed in an impossible situation and forced to make hard choices. Viewers can be forgiven for flashing back to the first two seasons of Abrams' Alias, a.k.a. "the good years." The world is in danger, but the real drama comes from watching someone whose life is falling apart.
But as with Alias, there's still plenty of action and intrigue. Set, like its predecessors, around the globe, Mission: Impossible III pits Cruise's semi-retired secret agent against Hoffman and his attempts to obtain… Well, it's never clear what he's out to obtain, but it bears a biohazard sticker, so it can't be good news. As usual, thwarting the bad guy involves using gadgets, disguises, a crack team of fellow agents (including a returning Ving Rhames), and elaborate plans that require the film to swoop past exploding vehicles and through luxurious locations.
Yes, it's fundamentally business as usual, but it's the best kind of business as usual, and it finds everyone working in top form. Abrams imports and enlarges Alias' smooth, stylish, yet remarkably visceral approach to action, and the actors pack a satisfying amount of drama into the moments between action scenes, whether those moments involve Cruise's romance with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang's Michelle Monaghan (always a welcome presence) or Philip Seymour Hoffman's chillingly single-minded approach to international villainy. It's all so well done that it's easy to forget, or at least forgive, the fact that that the ultimate outcome of the whole formula-fulfilling exercise is never really in doubt. It must be summer at last.