JJ Abrams Joins Tom Cruise’s Impossible Missions Force in M:i:III (2006)

Note: this article is on Mission: Impossible 3 (2006) – part of a 6-part series on all the movies in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Click here to read Part 1 on the original Mission: Impossible (1996) and Part 2 on Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

In the summer of 2006 Mission Impossible was back. Ethan Hunt has retired from active field work and trains fresh recruits for the Impossible Missions Force. However the unfortunate capture of one of his students leads to him going back into the field.

Ranking the Mission Impossible Franchise Movies

The Mission Impossible Gap Years

It had been quite a gap between the massive success of Mission Impossible 2 (2000) and what would become Ethan Hunt’s third thrilling adventure. Pre-production would be a long and difficult journey, although interestingly, it does seem in this era of movie franchises that aim to pump out four or five films a year at the potential cost of quality, those that are behind the Mission Impossible franchise would rather produce good movies than produce movies quickly.

Mission Impossible 3 would be released in the summer of 2006 but pre-production actually started in 2002 with Hollywood Director David Fincher. The aim was that Mission Impossible 3 would be released in 2004. As interesting as the prospect of a Fincher directed Mission Impossible was, sadly it would not come to pass. Fincher would leave the project and audiences would be denied a thriller helmed by Fincher for whom other projects awaited.

Following Fincher’s departure Joe Carnahan had been selected to direct the third installment in the franchise. He had made an impression with his film Narc (2002) and would have been another interesting director for the movie. It would seem that the film had come some way along the process of pre production and there are some tantalizing elements in Narc that point to how the film would have been if he had directed it. We would have seen a movie about a lone wolf terrorist who the Impossible Missions Force would hunt down. Some casting decisions had been made, audiences would have seen the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Carrie Ann-Moss and Scarlett Johannson, which would have been awesome! Another intriguing part of the pre production was that Thandie Newton was asked to reprise her role as Nyah, unfortunately Newton declined and this vision of Mission Impossible was not to be.

A Changing Spy Game

While Mission impossible 3 was in pre production the action movie had changed… Just as Mission Impossible 2 was released in an era where the action movie had changed, by the time that Mission Impossible 3 was released action movie trends had moved towards espionage action thrillers such as The Bourne Identity (2002) and the Bourne Supremacy (2004). In part these films were appealing because they were a reaction against the big budget CGI festivals. This new brand of action espionage thriller contained an excellent mix of character and plot with the best possible action unlike many big budget action movies of the late 90s/early 00s which concentrated largely on computer generated spectacle. In contrast to this the action movies like the Bourne films concentrated on real world martial arts techniques. Stunts performed by the stars, which of course Tom Cruise pioneered with the first two Mission Impossible movies and he  tradecraft of the espionage game replaced running up walls and stealth Aston Martins. Audiences gravitated to more mature themes which mirrored the darker post 9/11 world and more plausible, sophisticated action movies and the franchise that started the plausible spy thriller needed to raise its game.

Between the release of Mission Impossible 2 and Mission Impossible 3 being there was another fundamentally important change that would ultimately lead to Mission Impossible 3 finding its director. For a long time action television had laid effectively dormant. Long gone were the heydays of 80s action television. There were a few leading lights like Xena Warrior Princess from Sam Raimi’s Renaissance Pictures but with the best will in the world, complex storytelling was not an attribute you would give to those shows, but in 2001 action television was about to have a shot of adrenaline

Alias is the story of double agent Sydney Bristow who is an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency while posing as a operator for the evil organization SD6. The show had more mature themes and using fake aliases was a large part of the theme of the show, which of course was clearly inspired by the Mission Impossible franchise. The conflict of Sydney’s obligations in life made for compelling viewing and this was a show that was clearly standing on the shoulders of espionage fiction giants. The morally complex conflicts in the show were catnip to Tom Cruise who (like me and countless others) binge watched the first two seasons. Cruise was soon on to the shows’ creator J.J Abrams to take the director’s chair for Mission Impossible 3.

Tom Cruise and New Blood

One of Tom Cruise’s great talents when it comes to the Mission Impossible franchise is picking the best possible people to collaborate with J.J. Abrams on these movies. Mission Impossible 3 is further testament to this although Cruise was taking somewhat of risk in this being his directorial debut.

It’s difficult in the summer of 2018 to talk about Abrams as anything less than the renaissance man of pop culture, a quick google search will illustrate just the impact that he has had on the revival of action movies and television. He was effectively at the head of the successful reboots of the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises as well as a huge selection of other titles which, as action fans, you have all seen at least one of.

Rewatching Mission Impossible 3 you would have no idea that this was Abrams’ first feature. It is expertly directed and contains one of the best cold openings ever. The way that Abrams captures action in this movie is brilliant. He has an eye for capturing iconic spectacle and directs two of the greatest scenes in the Mission Impossible franchise. The Vatican City caper and the strike on the bridge which has got some breath taking action in it.

Abrams is certainly not solely responsible for the movie’s creative success, he is known to be a regular collaborator with screen writers and producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and this was no exception on Mission impossible 3 where both co wrote the script. These guys were perfect for a franchise like Mission Impossible because they knew action. In fact both had kept action going on the small screen as writers and co executive producers of both Hercules the Legendary Journeys and Xena Warrior Princess, something that they don’t really get enough credit for. All three names were excellent choices to take the franchise into a new and interesting direction and it would be a massive springboard into turning these three names into pop culture legends.

The great success of Mission Impossible 3 is definitely the movie’s narrative structure, taking the brilliant conflict of Ethan Hunt’s professional life and his personal one. It makes for compelling viewing and that’s all down to the collaborative efforts of director, star and writers.

Impossible Mission Team Work

Collaboration is very evident with what goes on on screen as well. The cast of this movie is maybe the most impressive in the franchise. Tom Cruise continually demonstrates a quite frankly awesome mix of entertainment and physical prowess. Ving Rhames returns as Luther Stickell and the moments between him and Cruise are excellent. It has been great to see this friendship develop over the course of the franchise. The IMF team are full of fresh recruits such as the always watchable Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the incredibly talented Maggie Q as Zhen, who, interestingly will go on to play the principal  in the latest television version of identity questioning espionage thriller Nikita, and Simon Pegg as the sort of Q tech aid to the IMF team, who performs the role with a mix of conviction, knowledge and laughs.

This casting is a little like Mission Impossible the next generation. As the previous film is so focused on Hunt’s story I think it’s an idea with mixed fortunes but the team gel very well and there is a real sense of working together for a common goal between them. This film also has Laurence Fishburne as the head of the IMF who plays the role with a moral ambiguity that keeps the audience guessing. There is also a great cameo from British actor Eddie Marsan. The real star of the movie is, however, the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman who is absolutely brilliant in the role of Owen Davian, a black market dealer. The villains in the Mission Impossible franchise have always been memorable but Davin is full of threat and menace. Every time he is on the screen the audience’s attention is grabbed and there are moments when you question if Hunt has met his match.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Mission Impossible 3 is a stunning debut from J.J. Abrams, it takes the very best of the formula of the two previous movie’s and weaves them together into a tight and tense espionage movie. It is well edited, the storytelling is incredibly strong and the performances are given by some of the best Hollywood had to offer at the time of production. Its location filming and action really pushes the story forward.

It perhaps doesn’t possess the style or glamour of the first two movie’s but makes something very contemporary and is a total thrill ride. The plot might be slightly derivative of Nikita (1990) and didn’t quite have the same cultural importance as the first two. Although it performed well at the box office it wasn’t quite the splash the first two where. Despite this Mission Impossible 3 is an incredibly well put together action movie which uses the Mission Impossible formula to maximum effect.