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By Pete Vonder Haar | May 6, 2006

The first “Mission: Impossible,” released in 1996, was a largely incoherent mess but still featured some interesting action scenes. The John Woo-directed sequel, on the other hand, was flat-out incomprehensible. Of course, poor quality has never been a hindrance to Hollywood, and the box office of both “M:I” films (each made in the neighborhood of $200 million) was sufficient to ensure Impossible Missions Force (IMF) agent extraordinaire Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) would be back for another go.

And his time around, we really have some more important questions to address. Namely: will the increasingly unstable Cruise’s encroaching insanity finally burst forth onto the screen? Will anyone be able to make heads or tails of the plot of the film? And does “Mission: Impossible 3” mark the beginning of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s post-“Capote” Oscar curse?

Things start promisingly enough. “M:I 3” opens with a perturbed Hoffman holding a gun to the head of Julia (Michelle Monaghan), Hunt’s significant other, while he questions the agent about the whereabouts of something called the “rabbit’s foot.” After the credits, we jump back in time a few days and learn Hunt has retired from field duty and is now a trainer for IMF, all of which is unbeknownst to his fiancée or her family. His attempts at domesticity are interrupted by the bad news that one of his protégés has been kidnapped by the target of her surveillance, an arms smuggler named Davian (Hoffman). After some token recalcitrance, Hunt gets the band team back together and sets off to retrieve her. The rescue doesn’t go entirely as planned, and the fledgling agent dies.

This would be truly heart-wrenching if not for the fact that she’s played by “Felicity’s” Keri Russell, and since I never got my wish granted of seeing her character die on that horrible show, I’ll take what I can get.

What follows includes the expected chase scenes, impressive explosions, and “shocking” betrayals, all of which is related to the MacGuffin: a certain canister with a biohazard sticker everyone is eager to get their hands on, which could be anything from weaponized smallpox to Cruise’s purged engrams.

The action moves well, at least. Director J.J. Abrams, unlike McG or – sadly enough – Woo himself in “M:I-2,” knows how to shoot a fight scene, and as in the original “Mission: Impossible” the action is fairly entertaining. Paramount has also given him enough of a budget so he can actually film in Rome and Shanghai, as opposed to “Alias” where he just films Los Angeles with a blue or yellow filter on the camera.

Then again, “M:I 3” is ludicrous enough at times to make anything in “Resident Evil: Apocalypse” seem plausible. Paramount has always wanted Ethan Hunt to serve as a hunkier version of James Bond, only with more pathos. Trouble is, the Bond franchise has always been ready with an implied (or overt) wink to its audience, as if to say, “We’re in on the joke. We know nobody could possibly kill this many men, bed this many women, and escape from so many perilous situations in the real world. Ha ha, you got us.”

By contrast, the latest “Mission: Impossible” is a cartoon. Worse, it’s a cartoon in which the main characters seem unaware of the absurdity of their shenanigans. Lacking Bond’s refinement and good humor or the comparable realism of the “Bourne Identity” franchise, “M:I 3” ends up as just another forgettable action movie. IMF’s tech isn’t even remotely based in reality, which only takes us out of the movie even more.

And something else I’ve recently noticed in Cruise’s films: the guy likes to run. He survived the initial alien attack in “War of the World” by improbably outdistancing everyone else in his neighborhood, and in “M:I 3” he hauls a*s on foot a number of times. I’m not sure if there’s a codicil in his contracts specifying that we have to watch the guy do a 5K in every one of his movies, but there’s a period at the end of this film where, no kidding, we watch him run for an uninterrupted minute and a half.

You’re very fit for a 43-year old, Tom, we get it. Now relax and have some Cheetohs.

“Shaun of the Dead’s” Simon Pegg does have an amusing turn as IMF’s requisite IT geek, and Hoffman portrays reptilian evil quite convincingly. To top it off, one never tires of the smoldering sensuality inherent in the relationship between the characters of Luther and Ethan. He even counsels Ethan against getting married. Talk about your covert agendas.

“Mission: Impossible 3” will make decent bank in spite of its star’s advancing real life psychosis, then end up forgotten in the wake of “The Da Vinci Code” and “Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Cthulhu’s Revenge.” Watching this movie is like sitting on your couch for two hours to catch a little network prime time: you may be mildly entertained, but damned if you’ll remember any of it five minutes later. On the plus side, you probably won’t care.

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