05 May 2006

I've always said that the Mission: Impossible series is a triumph of branding over content. I mean this as a compliment. The only thing that the movies have in common with one another—or with the original TV show—is a title and a theme song. They don't share a cast, a style, or even a particular attitude towards the material. Yes, the lead actor remains the same, but who is Ethan Hunt, really? Depending on the installment, he's either a clean-cut hotshot, a rock-climbing triathlete, or a softie and family man. James Bond never went through so many changes, even when he woke up looking like Daniel Craig.

But this indifference to spiritual continuity is actually the series' greatest strength. There's no fear of this franchise becoming tired, because there isn't really a franchise at all—just a star, a brand, and the bare bones of a genre. Every Mission: Impossible movie starts as an empty but extravagantly funded vessel that ends up occupied by the turn-ons and obsessions of whoever happens to be in charge. The crazier and kinkier the director, the more interesting the movie becomes.

This is probably why the latest installment is a bit underwhelming. Don't get me wrong: Mission: Impossible III is a highly proficient, cleverly assembled thriller. It's fun. But it isn't a movie that anybody is going to hate, and that's too bad. The first two movies, especially Mission: Impossible 2, were gargantuan riffs on the action genre by two extraordinarily uneven, idiosyncratic, and brilliant directors who had been given a blank check and the world's biggest movie star. The result was a pair of movies whose excesses were often in bad taste, but weirdly awe-inspiring.

Mission: Impossible III, by contrast, plays like first-rate television. Even here, 24 has raised the bar considerably. I still have vivid memories of being blown out of my seat by Mission: Impossible 2, and this installment lacks the same willingness to be ridiculous. Instead, it's smart, tasteful, and surprisingly sane—but a sane Ethan Hunt compares poorly to Jack Bauer. What this franchise needs is a great director who is a brilliant technician, but also crazy. Werner Herzog, anyone?

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