"Oh, wow, that is good writing! It's as if some divine hand were
inspiring me." - Jay Sherman
"Excellent, another sequel on the way!" - Satan
Before he began creating and directing on television, Abrams spent most of the 1990s writing midgrade Hollywood filler:
1990 – Taking Care of Business – James Belushi is a fun loving con artist impersonating uptight businessman Charles Grodin.
1991 – Regarding Henry – Harrison Ford gets amnesia.
1992 – Forever Young – Mel Gibson gets frozen in 1939 and wakes up in 1992.
1997 – Gone Fishin' – Danny Glover and Joe Pesci are bumbling fishing buddies on an adventure.
1998 – Armageddon – Michael Benjamin Bay's first gleefully nonsensical movie. (More about him later.)
Look how happy Danny Glover and Joe Pesci are to be rid of Mel Gibson.
These are the credits of a working screenwriter, but they aren't the kind of projects that cause major studios to hand over the keys to profitably long lived franchises like Star Trek or Star Wars. For one thing, there are a lot of famous names on the list above, but not one of those movies is likely to be mentioned in the first (or even tenth) paragraph of any of their obituaries. More importantly: none of those movies ever justified a sequel.
Abrams' first big successes came on commercial television. Felicity, about a love lorn young woman on the now defunct Warner Brothers network, was a modest hit that managed to make it to the sweet payout land of syndication with 84 episodes.
He then struck network television gold with Alias and Lost on Disney subsidiary ABC. Both were hits, and Lost was something of a critical darling (at least initially). Nobody really knows how much money those two shows made from broadcast, home video, merchandise, and however else cash can be wrung these days. Like mafia dons, media conglomerates do not discuss their business in public. The only certainty is that it was a lot and it still hasn't stopped. Both shows remain available, so both continue to earn.
Similarly mafia like, big studios (and their even bigger owners) promote and reward anyone who kicks up as well as Abrams does. So when Viacom subsidiary Paramount needed someone to revive Tom Cruise's dormant Mission Impossible franchise, Abrams got the call.
Mission Impossible 3 was Abrams first time directing for theaters, and it's probably his best movie. Up on the big screen and starring Tom Cruise (Thetan Level: MEGADONOR), the Mission Impossible franchise shares almost nothing with its television predecessor. The theme music and the title are the same, but instead of low budget sets and clockwork twists every six minutes, it's a big budget action franchise with lavish special effects and globe trotting location filming. Ironically, even though it's based on a TV show, it's the least "TVish" of Abrams' movies.
The film consists of four big action set pieces, evenly spread out over the 2h:5m runtime. (The rest is mostly talking scenes to set those up.) The skullduggery and violence are silly in the extreme, of course, but on the most basic level the story actually does make sense: Cruise and company are on the tail of a villain who killed one of their own (Felicity herself, Keri Russell) in pursuit of a MacGuffin called “the rabbit's foot”. It's not destined to be taught in screen writing classes, but the story isn't any kind of hyperbolic mess.
It's suspenseful, tense, fast, and utterly absurd. It is not, however, incoherent or repetitive. After Cruise captures his enemy (a vindictive sociopath ably played by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman), there's an interrogation scene, then a big action sequence where Hoffman escapes, then another interrogation scene where Cruise is the questionee rather than the questioner. The plot is winding but linear, the action is frantic but clear, and (with the exception of the lone, franchise mandated betrayal) the characters are straightforward. Good guys are good guys, bad guys are bad guys, and the audience is never given any reason to doubt that Cruise and his sidekicks are among the righteous.
It's a popcorn muncher, and a pretty good one. But it operates within a very strict set of boundaries. As a business proposition, a Mission Impossible movie starring Tom Cruise must never violate certain audience expectations. Cruise will always be the good guy. There will be daring stunts that show Cruise off as a seriously kick-ass secret agent. There will be a twist over which Cruise and his loyal buddies somehow triumph.
These films have earned $934 million at the box office in the U.S. alone. You will be unsurprised to hear that they are already working on a sixth.
In short, Mission Impossible 3 is a perfectly formulaic film, and – movie wise – that's a-okay. People don't buy tickets, or go to a Redbox, or order hotel pay-per-view for "M:I3 – Articulate Costume Drama" or "M:I3 – Multi-Layered Character Study". If Tom Cruise is squinting into some unknown danger on the cover, that's all any of the film's paying customers need to know.
To his credit, Abrams recognized that. Mission Impossible movies are about seemingly impossible missions that somehow get pulled off, and that's what he delivered. It's a successful formula predicated on cool action scenes, and he executed well.
In light of his later movies, though, what's most noticeable is how few of his future tricks he uses. The movie sustains long action sequences from the get go and doesn't insert tiny cliffhangers everywhere. The tropes are there (why, yes, that person was wearing a fake face), but they're used in new ways. Old characters aren't dredged up for nothing more than name recognition. And the universe of Mission Impossible, which is mostly just Tom Cruise and bosses he can never quite trust, is portrayed more or less as it was in the first two entries. There is plenty of lens flare - Abrams' visual hallmark - but on a substantive level, Mission Impossible 3 is almost nothing like his later directing efforts.
(Incidentally, I strongly recommend against listening to the DVD commentary for this movie. It's just Abrams and Cruise, and whenever Laurence Fishburne is on screen, Cruise yells out "Look at Fish!". It's like listening to a hyperactive 3-year-old.)
Continue to Chapter 3 - Star Trek 11: Reboot