Now that JJ Abrams is knee-deep in the production of Star Wars Episode VII, I thought it would be a nice time to step back and look at some of the films he has directed in order to get a better sense of what he might bring to the table with his take on George Lucas’ beloved franchise. After cutting his teeth in a several episodes of Felicity and Alias, he brought his signature style of kinetic hyper-realism to the pilot episode of Lost, which is still one of the most harrowing two hours of television I can recall seeing. With the third installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise on the verge of being lost forever in development hell, producer and star Tom Cruise called Abrams in to save the day and get the film back on track. And what a track it turned out to be.
Abrams essentially approaches the movie from the standpoint of a 13-year-old boy who wants to see big-screen heroes pull off big-time action. With rarely a dull moment in its two-hour runtime, the movie focuses on a now-retired Ethan Hunt (Cruise) who is eager to leave the life of a super-spy behind and focus on new pursuits. Chief among his new responsibilities is his soon-to-be wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) who hasn’t the first clue that her hunky, ripped-to-shreds fiancee is not, in fact, a lowly transportation data analyst. How the women in these movies are so utterly clueless is beyond me, and in many ways the rest of the film could basically pass for a True Lies sequel. Or reboot. Either one works.
Believe it or not, Hunt soon manages to find himself knee-deep in the throes of his former life after his former trainee Lindsey (Keri Russel, taking a cue from Samuel Jackson in Deep Blue Sea by unexpectedly recusing herself from most of the movie) is abducted by a really bad guy named Owen Davian who wants to do really bad things. To the whole world. For some reason. But few people can pull off a barely unhinged psychopath better than Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his turn as the villain almost steals the show from Cruise and company.
What ensues is a breathless globetrotting adventure involving all the typical Mission: Impossible tropes we have all come to know and love: car chases, double-crosses, clever masks, insane stunts, nail-biting infiltrations, and wisecracking computer nerd sidekicks. Abrams runs the gamut here, from the ol’ “loop the security camera footage” trick to having Tom Cruise himself jump off skyscrapers for kicks, all while keeping the action flowing at a brisk pace that walks a fine line between engaging and overpowering. And that’s the memo that John Woo somehow missed when he made Mission: Impossible II. People don’t show up to these movies for long, slow buildups and mano-a-mano slow-motion standoffs. They just want a hero to accomplish amazing things in the face of (wait for it…) impossible odds. Abrams knows this, and keeps the action building from one setpiece to the next while also crafting believable, if somewhat thin, relationships between all parties involved. The final showdown between Hunt and Davian is a bit anticlimactic, but the movie as a whole is a thoroughly engaging action romp with just enough lens flares so as to not leave the audience blinded.