“What’s in Rabbit Foot?” someone asks in Mission: Impossible: 3. The answer, my friends, is pure, concentrated MacGuffin. Like any good MacGuffin, Rabbit Foot is the thing that drives the mechanics of this film – in MI3’s case it’s a device (biohazardous, it seems) that evil arms merchant Philip Seymour Hoffman wants, and he’ll kill Tom Cruise’s new wife if he doesn’t get it. The problem with MI3 ends up being that I really could care less if the wife dies. It’s OK to not really care about the MacGuffin, but you should be somewhat invested in the characters.

There isn’t a single character in MI3 that I cared about, except for the villain. And I didn’t even care about him, but he’s interesting in the too short time he’s onscreen. Ethan Hunt, the hero of the Mission: Impossible films, strives to be two-dimensional. He’s like someone threw together Action Hero characteristics and set him loose in a herky jerky story. That’s a problem with the other two films in the series as well, by the way, but MI3 makes no real effort to fix this. If anything, I found Hunt even farther from humanity this go-round. Besides being an invulnerable superman (hey, remember why Die Hard was fun? Because Willis took a beating, and it hurt), Hunt is possessed of Tom Cruise’s creepy intensity – his body is a coiled mass in every scene in the film. Early on there’s an engagement party for Hunt and his damsel-in-distress-to-be, Michelle Monaghan, and Cruise plays Hunt like he’s constantly on edge. He seems like the worst kind of host, the guy who will come up behind you every two minutes to make sure you’re having fun, that you’re enjoying your drink, that you’re mingling and that you throw your coat on the Terror Dog in the bedroom. Sorry, wrong high strung movie character, but I think you get the point.  

This time Ethan has a whole team of people with him, which makes for some nice heist-like missions, but again, I couldn’t care less if any of them lived or died. Maggie Q plays the hot babe whose specialties are being hot and a babe. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays the vehicles guy who seems to have had his personality shot off in the war (he gets exactly two "character" bits – he doesn’t seem to like being the getaway guy who doesn’t see action, and he likes being in the Impossible Mission Force because it doesn’t leave room for relationships. This guy doesn’t even cast a shadow, but it’s still more than Maggie Q gets). Finally Ving Rhames is back again as Ethan’s comic relief. The illusion of character is created here by having the same actor play the same role in three films, but he’s depth-free. The actors themselves have varying degrees of charisma, but the characters only exist to come in and out of the story when needed.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Michelle Monaghan both delivered fine performances in films last year, so they’re interesting to compare and contrast here. Hoffman is given nothing to work with – to call his evil arms dealer a cipher is being kind. In his hands this is a challenge, not an obstacle, though – he imbues the character with deep, sociopathic menace that isn’t aping any of the other great cinematic villains of history. He takes this skimpy role and beefs it up with his own presence and ability. Monaghan can’t seem to do the same thing with her puddle-deep girlfriend in trouble role. I guess she has to get credit for not acting terrified while sharing scenes with the wound-so-tight-he-could-snap-at-any-moment Cruise, but otherwise she’s as much of a MacGuffin as Rabbit Foot. She needs to be placed in danger so Ethan Hunt has something to actually do. And in the same way that Rabbit Foot is never fleshed out, neither is she.

The film has two MacGuffins; it could have used another. When the movie is in action mode it’s a blast. Almost every scene that isn’t action oriented is a chore to sit through. The talky bits are dreadful and slow, and they make the whole film feel sluggish. It doesn’t help that the action scenes appear to be happening independent of the plot – you could watch a cut of this film containing just the action sequences and be just as satisfied, as each sequence seems to exist only to fulfill a need for thrills. It’s like a video game – you can feel free to skip the cinematic scenes, since they give no information that’s vital to the actual gameplay.

Luckily the action is often fantastic, if rote. There’s not much new here. One of the unspoken rules of the blockbuster action film is that each new one should raise the bar somewhere, but MI3 doesn’t seem interested in doing that – it’s happy to just deliver some very nice, very clear, and very standard set pieces. The clarity is particularly nice, although many of the action bits take place in weirdly confined environments. It feels like director JJ Abrams’ TV training is poking through, creating set pieces that can be done on a budget and a soundstage. There is one truly bizarre bit worth mentioning, when Hunt has to run three quarters of a mile. The camera just rushes alongside him the whole time in a single shot. There’s no countdown clock or anything, so I don’t know why we had to sit through a minute and a half of Tom Cruise running.

MI3’s not a bad movie by any means – for the genre it’s maybe even a bit above average. It’s not an embarrassing film debut for JJ Abrams, but it does point to him being more of the anonymous action hack school of filmmaking than anything else. MI3 does have the distinction of being the best film in the series so far, but just like the first two, this is a movie that is already slipping out of my mind and will probably never be revisited – or even thought about – again.

6.9 out of 10