Mission: Impossible III runs the franchise into the ground.

Mission: Impossible III finds Tom Cruise downplaying the world's single greatest piece of action music in deference to an Age of Fear vibe that's a lot more grueling than rousing. Seems Lalo Schifrin's adrenaline-pumping "dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum" is now as dated as the Cold War from which it sprang; maybe the star-producer should've sought the rights to "Taps" instead. Cruise's second sequel to his remake of a TV show cuts straight from the Paramount logo to the unmistakably sickening sounds of torture, followed by the queasy sight of what appears to be our hero's young sweetheart held at gunpoint, bound and gagged. Then comes the villain's really bad news for tied-up superspy Ethan Hunt: "We've put an explosive charge in your head." Channeling the spirit of the times, Cruise's approach is calculatedly invasive. In the current issue of Time, the icon praises his handpicked director J.J. Abrams as having been "born to impinge on and invade pop culture." Clearly the blockbuster has entered its true shock-and-awe phase.

Paramilitary hardware of the most disturbingly powerful variety takes up the bulk of the new Mission's high-tech toy box: If Hasbro hasn't licensed the missile-toting fighter jets that cut the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to pieces at the movie's midpoint, we need a regime change in the marketing department. Still, as the stakes of the star's own epic battle are too high for him to target only jarheads in the audience, M:i:III's first full scene flashes back in time from the pre-credit torture-chamber atrocity and plays like an outtake from Jerry Maguire: Hanging up his PlayStation sunglasses and turbocharged Harley and whatnot, Hunt grinningly takes drink orders from well-wishers at the bourgeois party celebrating his engagement to resident nurse Julia (Michelle Monaghan). "Yeah, I'd marry him," her friends agree when he's out of earshot. But enough of that mushy stuff: No sooner has one woman pulled Hunt out of the spy game than another — an outed operative (Keri Russell) held captive in a Berlin warehouse — pulls him back in. Hopeful message to any females who might still be susceptible to that megawatt smile: If Tom Cruise doesn't marry you, he might at least rescue you.

Whether or not this spectacularly controlling, supernaturally driven star timed the birth of his new baby to coincide with the release of a movie about the competing pressures of work and family (you'll recall that the actor heroically fled his fiancée's postpartum room in order to make the scene at M:i:III's Rome premiere), even a nonfan has to grant that Cruise's commercial instincts are at least the equal of his alarmingly purposeful workaholism. The very least of the icon's clairvoyance has resulted in his prescient casting of this year's Best Actor winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, here in check-cashing mode as a torture-loving trader of bioterrorist goods and seller of arms to Arab bombers and North Korea. (Deprived of the chance to give a performance, Hoffman merely mumbles his scariest lines: "Remember I said I was gonna kill you in front of her? I'm gonna kill her in front of you.") Shrewder still is Cruise's choice to ditch most traces of the '70s-film fetishism that previously courted directors David Fincher and Joe Carnahan might have brought to this mission and take up with Abrams, a first-timer whose alternately slick and sappy work on TV's Alias made him ideal for M:i:III's this-time-it's-personal brand of spy melodrama and borderline sadism.

Cruise may be Mr. Hollywood, but he's not above conceding that our purportedly lower forms of entertainment — namely cheap horror movies and series television — have tapped the torturous zeitgeist a lot more effectively of late than has studio fare. Thus the Mission comes full circle: Following the A-list auteurism of Brian De Palma's amusingly chilly operatics (Mission: Impossible) and John Woo's extreme-sports calisthenics (Mission: Impossible 2), a property that began as a Cold War-era home invasion to fill the gap during Hollywood's last big slump turns back to address the small screen (at a cost of $150 million). But aside from a single jazzy image of Hunt taking a nosedive off a Shanghai skyscraper, Abrams' movie is too oppressive, too enamored of its brutality to deliver anything like real thrills. Its deeply unpleasant tone nearly makes you long even for Woo's cartoon absurdities. In between the first of countless torture scenes and what looks like a standard-issue paparazzi shot of celebrity puppy-love (Cruise's own happy ending after the last junket is out of the way?), the witless M:i:III strains through its stud's guilty tears to assert that the new millennium mainly affords a hardworking breadwinner the chance to take secret meetings in Vatican City and still get home in time for dinner. It's the fantasy of an American hero who still has some explaining to do.


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