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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Mission Impossible III” (2006) – The 15th Anniversary

Only a few actors have been able to sustain a single ongoing franchise more so than Vin Diesel (with the “Fast & Furious” saga) or Tom Cruise. For the actor and stunt man, the “Mission Impossible” franchise has proved with it’s most recent entry with 2018’s “Fallout”. That more than two decades after the former ‘60s TV spy show had became a box office blockbuster in 1996 (directed by Brian De Palma), the formula still remains as potent as ever. 

While “Mission Impossible II”, directed by action master John Woo was the weakest of the series. The franchise as a whole doesn’t really have a dud in the bunch, in fact it only gets better with each film. There’s much to admire in the various entries of this series, which includes the work of world-class auteurs, memorable action pieces and stunts that make it a wonder how Tom Cruise has survived this long.

In 1996, when Tom Cruise sought to launch “Mission Impossible” with his producing partner Paula Wagner. The studios were reluctant to invest in an expired TV property, thinking it was beneath the mega star power of Tom Cruise. Twenty five years later and it has become a staple of summer movie fare, where all six “Mission Impossible” films have reached a profit of over $400 billion.

“Mission Impossible” set out to have a different filmmaker with each film to give each chapter a unique vision. With “Rogue Nation” and “Fallout”, Tom Cruise broke that “One Director’s Vision” concept  by having frequent collaborator, writer and director Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”, “Edge of Tomorrow”) to stick around as the franchise’s visionary and bring a new energy to the series.

Always a keen observer of any upcoming talent. Tom Cruise picked J.J. Abrams (“Super 8”) personally after having binge watched the first two seasons of Abrams created TV series “Alias”. Going from the small screen to his first mega budget feature film, the third “Mission Impossible” feature can be recognized as a spiritual sibling to “Alias”. A spy thriller that treats the central agent as a kind of superhero, alternating between their Normal Life and the spy world. With a budget of $150 million, this is the most expensive movie ever undertaken at the time, by a first time feature film director.

In 2002, director David Fincher (“Se7en” and “Fight Club”) was slated to direct “Mission: Impossible III” for a summer 2004 release date. Fincher, who cited creative differences over the direction of the series, had actually dropped out in favor of doing “Panic Room” with Jodie Foster. When David Fincher was attached as director, Sylvester Stallone was being courted to play the main villain. To replace Fincher was director Joe Carnahan (“Narc”, “The A-Team”), who worked on developing the film for 15 months. 

Carnahan was offered the position of director after Tom Cruise was impressed by his work on what is certainly his best film “Narc” with Jason Patric from 2002, which Cruise also executive produced. Under Carnahan’s involvement, the film was to feature “Kenneth Branagh playing the villain based on Timothy McVeigh”, as well as Carrie-Anne Moss (“The Matrix”) and Scarlett Johansson casted in other roles. 

Thandie Newton was offered to reprise her role as Nyah Nordoff-Hall from “Mission: Impossible II” but she declined, in order to concentrate on her family. Her role in the story was later changed to a new character named Leah Quint, who would have been played by Carrie-Anne Moss. However, once J.J. Abrams took over directing the project, the character was scrapped. Carnahan quit after a dispute over the film’s tone and his departure delayed “M:I III” by a year while a new director was being sought. In this time, Cruise went on to film Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” in 2005. 

English screenwriter Ben Trebilcook had penned previous drafts and had Ang Lee in talks to direct. One of the stories involved the destruction of various Wonders of the World, which was set as a prequel to the first movie and brought back Emilio Estevez. The script contained elements deemed too sensitive, as they drew close parallels to the 9/11 attacks. 

Another draft featured the trafficking of human organs and was re-written by Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”). Phil Alden Robinson (“Field Of Dreams” and “The Sum Of All Fears”) was one of the finalists for director before Cruise chose Abrams. On June 8th 2005, Paramount Pictures gave the film the green-light after a new cast of actors was hired, Abrams was on board and the film’s budget was redeveloped, which included Cruise taking a major pay cut. 

When Abrams signed on, the production was delayed a year due to his contractual obligations with “Alias” and “Lost”. During this time Kenneth Branagh, Carrie-Anne Moss and Scarlet Johansson had all departed from the project because of the many delays in production. Abrams initially pitched his Jennifer Garner spy series “Alias” with the question “What if Felicity were a spy?”. So it’s only appropriate that Keri Russell who starred in Abrams series “Felicity” actually become a spy in “Mission Impossible III”. Keri Russell had replaced Scarlet Johansson when she dropped out of the film. Russell had trained for three months in preparation for the film.

J.J. Abrams started as a screenwriter for films “Regarding Henry” with Harrison Ford, “Forever Young” with Mel Gibson, “Armageddon” with Bruce Willis and “Joy Ride” with Paul Walker. But in 1998, Abrams made his transition into television as the producer, writer and creator of “Felicity”, “Alias” and “Lost”. All of this was under his belt when he was given the rare distinction of launching his feature film career, with a sure fire blockbuster thanks to Tom Cruise. Let’s not forget that Abrams also deserves credit for not just rebooting “Mission Impossible”, but “Star Wars” and the “Star Trek” films. 

Abrams always loves to make things personal and that’s one of the reinventions he brings to “Mission Impossible III”. Abrams puts more of an effort into developing Ethan Hunt as a character, making him more down to earth, retired and happily engaged to Julia (originally casted for Rachel McAdams before Michelle Monaghan took the role). Abrams also implies a more plot-driven entry in the franchise, involving a MacGuffin called “The Rabbit’s Foot” and giving us that classic “This time it’s personal” mission. 

Abrams had responded immediately to the opportunity to bring a new vision of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise to life. “When Tom approached me about directing this movie, I said `yes’ before he even asked me the question”, says Abrams. “The promise of a ‘Mission: Impossible’ movie is the ultimate opportunity for a writer and a director. You have the chance, especially with someone like Tom and the other actors we have in the cast, to get into some real emotional character portrayals”.

“From the beginning, Tom and I talked about wanting to do a movie that had a surprisingly personal and intimate story”, continues Abrams. “When you hear ‘Mission: Impossible’, you know you are going to get extreme situations, great action and incredible stunts. The idea was to take that opportunity and combine it with an intimate story, a love story and friendships that were real friendships with characters that you get to know and like”. 

To achieve that, Abrams says, he asked a few questions that probed some parts of the Ethan Hunt character that have gone unexplored. “How do you reconcile being a man who does what Ethan Hunt does?” asks Abrams. “Our approach is not to make a movie about a spy, but to tell a story about a man who is a spy. It may sound like semantics, but when you truly let that guide you, the questions come and the answers that appear are actually relatable, emotional and fascinating”. 

“Making a ‘Mission: Impossible’ is a different experience every time”, says Cruise. “We’re presenting Ethan Hunt from a different viewpoint. I love playing Ethan and each time out, we go on that ‘Mission’ ride from a new perspective. This is J.J. Abrams’s vision, with his voice as a filmmaker”.

“J.J. has earned his reputation as a television maestro”, says producer Paula Wagner, “But I had known J.J. from his years as a feature film writer and his scripts were always written with the amazing eye of a director. When Tom and I went back and watched the work he had directed like the pilot of ‘Lost’ and his ‘Alias’ work. Tom said, “This is it. This is the guy to direct ‘Mission: Impossible’. The instant I went into J.J.’s office, we clicked, both artistically and personally”, says Cruise. “J.J.’s work has everything I love about movies: his characters, the personal stories, the twists and turns. The first thing that I said to him was, ‘What would you do with this series? I want this to be a J.J. Abrams ‘Mission: Impossible’”.

The production designer, Scott Chambliss, says that Abrams’ television experience had prepared him and the rest of the crew for a run and gun style of feature filmmaking. “The last five years working with J.J. at that pace has been the perfect training to work with J.J. here. On ‘Alias’, we had to think on our feet and make choices quickly. Then, on ‘Mission Impossible III’ we had so many people so well versed in this format and this scale.  It was interesting to watch the integration between the TV guys and the guys who’ve been doing the big movies; we all figured out how to make a huge action movie in a very compressed time envelope”.

“I don’t think this film could have been done without J.J.,” says Philip Seymour Hoffman (plays villain Owen Davian). “He brings an incredible sense of humor, he’s astonishingly bright, sharp and he has a confidence about him that’s absolutely necessary to steer the ship of ‘Mission: Impossible III’. He has such a sure hand that we all trust him implicitly, he kept us on the right path”.

While “Mission Impossible III” was in pre production the action movie genre was changing and had changed. By the time that “Mission Impossible III” was released the genre had moved towards espionage action thrillers such as “The Bourne Identity” (2002). In these films were appealing because they were on a modest budget that contained an excellent mix of character and plot with action sequences that didn’t rely on CGI and used real props and real world martial arts techniques. Even stunts performed by the films stars, which of course Tom Cruise pioneered with the “Mission Impossible” franchise. The “Jason Bourne” and “Mission Impossible” series weren’t like many big budget action movies of that time which concentrated their set pieces largely on computer generated spectacle.

Rewatching “Mission Impossible III” you would have no idea that this was J.J. Abrams’ first feature (well then again the light flares are a giveaway). It is expertly directed, with spectacularly staged action sequences and features one of the best cold openings to a movie ever. The opening scene featuring Tom Cruise pitted against the franchises best villain played by Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, as arms dealer Owen Davian. This cold opening which works best if seen for yourself, leads right into that iconic image of the fuse lighting and burning over the even more iconic theme song by Lalo Schifrin. 

Owen Davian is one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s best roles. He is casually, but calmly vicious and a cold blooded mad man whose relentlessly calm demeanor brings an eerie realism, to a role that could have been just a simple cardboard baddie. Out of Hoffman’s many great sequences throughout the movie. One of the best is when Hunt dangles the Davian out of a plane in an attempt to make him talk. Hoffman has this dead eyed stare and speaks to Ethan Hunt, like a vindictive monster. He tells Ethan “You have a wife or a girlfriend? Because you know what I’m gonna do next? I’m gonna find her, whoever she is. I’m gonna find her and I’m gonna hurt her. I’m gonna make her bleed, cry and call out your name. And you’re not gonna be able to do shit. You know why? Because you’re gonna be this close to dead. And then I’m gonna kill you right in front of her”. 

Hoffman said about his character, “He’s not just a villain. He’s a psychopath. He creates incredible empathy for Ethan; the darker, more evil, more vicious this man is toward the hero, the more you want the hero to take this man down”. Filming “Mission Impossible III” presented new challenges to Hoffman as he commented “I’ve never done an action film before and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve known J.J. casually for many years and I worked with Tom before on ‘Magnolia’. When I read the script, I was impressed with the three ingredients of Tom, J.J. and the screenplay combined. I thought that the time was right to do this kind of project, with these people and with this script”. 

Hoffman is so menacing but he is so bracing to watch, his performance so beautiful and he gives the movies some of their most indelible images, since that now extremely famous bead of sweat that crept down Cruise’s brow. Even in the films final showdown as Hoffman and Cruise go head to head in that classic hero vs villain showdown. It’s a hand to hand showdown that is elevated by a clever variation on the “beat the clock bomb defusing scenario” that had already become cliché for these movies. Aside from Sean Harris as big baddie Solomon Lane in “Rogue Nation” and “Fallout”. Philip Seymour Hoffman as arms dealer Owen Davian, is still the best villain this franchise has offered up. 

“Mission Impossible III” also introduces new character Benji Dunn, played by Simon Pegg. After the success of 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead”, Simon Pegg was asked whether he was going to be pursuing a career in Hollywood, to which he laughed and replied “It’s not like I’m going to be in ‘Mission: Impossible III’”. Originally Ricky Gervais was cast in the film as an ally to Ethan Hunt. But due to various production and casting changes, Gervais had to pull out of the film and was replaced by Simon Pegg. His role as Benji has since been expanded substantially in the fourth film “Ghost Protocol” and every installment since. 

Abrams infused a bigger production, with bigger action and bigger stunts with “M:I III” and the way that Abrams captures the action is brilliant. He has an eye for capturing iconic spectacle and directs some of the best action scenes in the “Mission Impossible” franchise. The Vatican City caper, the strike on the bridge and the opening warehouse shootout are all part of Abrams breath taking action.

Legendary action director Vic Armstrong was charged with realizing J.J. Abrams signature action style on the big screen in “Mission Impossible III”. Armstrong said “All the initial discussions I had with J.J. were about the style. He wanted to put his own stamp on the action sequences; my job as an action director is to copy the style of the director. You need a seamless transition between the action and the rest of the film so it’s all part of the same world. Once we had established that, I started looking at the action in the movie and what had to be achieved”.

In order to work out the complicated action shots and sequences, Abrams made full use of the pre-visualization capabilities at his disposal. Pre-visualization is the director’s opportunity to describe and plan out an action sequence, as he envisions it and to relay that to his visual effects editor, who makes a computer generated representation of it. So this way, each department can see exactly what the specific requirements will be as they prepare for the sequence.

Special Effects Coordinator Dan Sudick explains, “When we sit down with the director and look at a pre-viz for example, the bridge sequence. We can see the cars driving down the bridge, flipping, rolling or do whatever it is that J.J. wants them to do. We take that information and do it in the real world. We take the cars and rig them to do exactly what is shown in the pre-viz”. Once the heads of each department can see what the director intends for the sequence, they can then begin the intricate work of realizing the sequence on film.

Action director Vic Armstrong, says that his experience working with Tom Cruise on “War of the Worlds” prepared him for the actor and producer’s well known enthusiasm for performing his own stunts. “He’s 100% hands on, which is ideal, because of his tremendous ability,” says Armstrong. “Having worked with him before really helped, because I designed the stunts with him in mind. We’ve done some amazing things with Tom; he went above and beyond what I expected him to do”. For Abrams, achieving the effects in-camera (as opposed to with CGI) with Cruise performing as many of his own stunts as possible was a must. “All the latest CG technology is great, but if you can do something for real and actually have the actor perform the stunt and not rely on head replacement then nothing trumps that”.

“For me, it’s part of the challenge of making movies,” says Cruise. “You can’t take undue risks, but if you can train and perform a stunt in a way that gives the movie credibility and audiences say ‘Wow, that really is that guy doing that’, then it makes for a more entertaining experience for the audience.

“Tom Cruise raises the bar in this movie by doing his most intricate and amazing stunts to date,” says Wagner. “Not only is he a great actor, producer and the premiere movie star in the world, but he is also a stuntman. He is very precise. When I stand there as a producer and I see Tom with a truck sliding over him, it’s a little nerve wracking, but I know he is totally in control of what he is doing”. 

Credit for the movie’s creative success, also deserves to go to Abrams regular collaborators, screen writers and producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. The two screenwriters are responsible for the tv series “Alias”, “Hawaii Five-0”, “Star Trek: Picard”, among many others. The duo have also written for the big screen with “Transformers”, “The Island”, “The Legend Of Zorro” and both J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” films. Kurtzman and Orci were perfect for a franchise like “Mission Impossible” because they have a unique blend of action, character, comedy, drama and they knew how to write smart scripts.

Kurtzman, Orci and Abrams had to dream up new sequences for Ethan Hunt to survive. Something that Abrams says, put him in a delicate situation. Abrams went on to say “When we started writing the action sequences, we would say, ‘We shouldn’t even write this because Tom’s going to want to do the stunt himself’. In the end, we realized, of course, we had to give the best sequence we could. Though it’s a bit hair-raising, it’s inspiring to work with an actor and producer who’s so willing to give everything to make the best movie he can”. 

Cruise did get injured on set and ended up walking away with cracked ribs from one of the undisclosed stunts. But on a more unfortunate incident, the special effects technician Steven Scott Wheatley had sued Paramount Pictures and Tom Cruise’s production company. Wheatley filed gross negligence after the pyrotechnics in a stunt in which he was involved went wrong and he was engulfed in a ball of flame. Causing Wheatley to suffer third-degree burns on over sixty percent of his body. 

“Mission Impossible III” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 26th, 2006. To promote the film, Paramount had rigged 4,500 randomly selected Los Angeles Times vending boxes with digital audio players which would play the theme song when the door was opened. The audio players did not always stay concealed and in many cases came loose and fell on top of the stack of newspapers in plain view, with the result that they were widely mistaken for bombs. Police bomb squads detonated a number of the vending boxes and even temporarily shut down a veterans hospital in response to the apparent “threat”. Despite these problems, Paramount and the Los Angeles Times opted to leave the audio players in the boxes until two days after the movie’s opening. 

“Mission Impossible III” was Tom Cruise’s eighth movie in a row to gross over $100m domestically. It was a commercial success, having grossed over $397 million against a $150 million budget. Abrams has made a top-notch action movie, with writing and a direction that not only delivers the best in the series, but practically resets and refreshes the longevity of the franchise. 

J.J. Abrams theatrical debut is as good as anything he’s produced on television. He injects fresh blood and energy into the now twenty five year franchise via a stronger plot, a more menacing and the best villain in the films franchise (terrifically played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). “Mission Impossible III” is not only exciting, it’s fun, exciting, kinetic, intelligent, relentlessly entertaining and a step forward for the franchise. It’s the best of the “Mission Impossible” formula pushed to maximum effect.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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