Listen up, class: we are in the late, or decadent, phase of action-adventure cinema. By now there have been as many variations on the spy-vs.-spy genre as Renaissance artists did on the Pietà. So a presummer blockbuster like Mission: Impossible III, confected by TV auteur J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost), is inevitably a commentary on every action movie that preceded it. Such an endeavor brings out the scholar in its audience and the pedagogue in its reviewers. For real students of the form, straight questions about M:i:III are too easy. (What film is this film most like? True Lies. Next.) Instead try these five mini-essays.
THE CARE AND TWEAKING OF SEQUELS. The givens of M:i:III are a theme (spy team saves world with gadgets and lifelike masks), a jazzy jingle (Lalo Schifrin's, from the 1960s TV series) and, crucially, a star--the star, Tom Cruise, as Mission stud Ethan Hunt. Problem is, Cruise's stature instantly torpedoes the notion of team spirit. The others push buttons and get in trouble; he rides motorcycles, runs the length of Shanghai and eats up all the screen time. Is there room for a collective hero in star vehicles? Discuss.
THE ART-FILM VILLAIN. For a bad guy, M:i:III has Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose Owen Davian is surprisingly unmannered. He does not twirl a mustache or stroke a cat; he's just a bad dude in a worse mood, simmering and glowering. Does Hoffman class up the film or lower its temperature? Argue both sides.
THE ACTION DIRECTOR AS ARMS DEALER. Davian sells weapons and secrets to "axis of evil" nations (both of them). That's bad? Then why do action films peddle weapons of mass-media destruction to the audience? M:i:III has more cool hardware than a defense-industry trade show. It revels in the balletics of ballistics, the exploding orangeness of a fireball, the crystal shower as a body is propelled through plate glass. Fret at length.
THE ACTION FILM AS STAR AUTOBIOGRAPHY. Cruise, some people think, is crazy. Yeah, like a fox. He has tended his fame long enough to know how to work it into this otherwise impersonal epic. Here Ethan is engaged (to Michelle Monaghan, who has strong Katie Holmes vibes) and takes his domestic life as passionately and seriously as his career. He has had a painful microbomb implanted in his brain--that explains a lot about the star's shenanigans this past year. And at the end, his team jumps up and down in evocation of Cruise's stunt on Oprah. Is celebrity a mask we love to see the star pull off, grinning at his own foibles? Ponder and deplore.
THE THEORY OF SMART-DUMB. The industry's canniest minds rarely make sensitive social dramas. They leave that to Sundance, instead devising clever updates of genres they loved as kids: horror, farce, sci-fi and spy-fi. Aiming low, they often hit the target, which at the box office can be measured in the hundreds of millions. M:i:III accomplishes its mission: to run smart variations on dumb tropes. After all, summer movies are not for students but for thrill consumers. Devour and enjoy.