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The Bliss of Watching 'Mission': Incomprehensible

Brilliant nonsense: Tom Cruise and Michelle Monaghan star in our critic's new favorite,
Brilliant nonsense: Tom Cruise and Michelle Monaghan star in our critic's new favorite, "M:i:III." (By Mark Fellman)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

If you're lucky enough to see movies for a living, a question you get all the time is, what is your favorite? I've taken various stabs at this, believing "favorite" did not necessarily mean "best," but most fun, most useful, most beloved, best remembered.

Now I have a new one. And when I tell you my new favorite is "Mission: Impossible III," you'll probably say, 'That piece of loud, stupefying fluff?!' He's finally lost it. We knew he would, but . . . so soon?

Not only is it my favorite movie, but I've seen it five times. In a row . In a stinkin' row! You know what? It got better each time, until it was finally a blast of steamy bliss pouring down from heaven. Cruise, you genius! Paramount, you fools. Why fire him when he's finally mastered the secret of pure brain candy?

Let me make the case, which is colored by the fact that as I spun through "M:i:III" time after time after time, there were certain extenuating circumstances. One was the airplane that surrounded me, and the other was the deep, dark, scary, cold Pacific Ocean 42,000 feet beneath me. Hmmm, then there was my wife's head on my shoulder as she slept, and some strange teenage girl's feet in my lap as she slept. (Okay, they weren't actually in my lap, but they were in my space; I couldn't escape them!) Finally, there were the children, dozens of them, magical, beautiful, mischievous, loud and really annoying, in seats to the left, right, front and rear. My legs began to shrink, my feet to sleep, my, er, posterior, to tingle. Ach!

I was in that zone of sleep-deprived agony that usually involves crossing international datelines and messing up the internal gyroscope for weeks at a time. I was in a cocoon of misery; I needed assistance, relief, deliverance. To the rescue: movies!

Transoceanic planes, of course, are now wired with digital imagery available on a 3-by-7-inch screen seemingly two inches from your bleary eyes, and my other movie choices were the very fine "Inside Man" from Spike Lee; the movie I alone of all critics in America had liked, "Failure to Launch"; and Antonio Banderas teaching the tango to inner-city teens in "Take the Lead." There was also "Godzilla" and various Korean and Japanese sentimental comedies, but since I couldn't figure out the "language key" on the remote, those were pretty much out. The other films demanded exactly what I did not have: full attention. You had to meet them on their terms, give yourself over to their disciplines, absorb their values and systems. Try that with 12 pounds of strange girl feet (almost) in your lap!

So I gave it up for "M:i:III" without much of a fight. It wasn't that I'd seen "M:i's" I and II (though I had), or that I'd watched and loved the CBS original all those years ago (though I did), it's that I ended up joining the movie in mid-passage. This didn't mean it made no sense. It already made no sense. It was supposed to make no sense. It was engineered by brilliant minds to make no sense. No, what it meant was that I was freed from the expectation that it might possibly make just a little bit of sense. That old-guy stricture that forever gets in my way in appraising The New Movie was thereby suspended: It doesn't have to make sense. It can't make sense. It's beyond sense. To require sense is to cripple yourself from the achieving of satori and make it impossible to arrive at true emptiness!

For in any form, seen in any direction, in any language, no movie is as full of perfect Zen emptiness as "M:i:III." It's the hole in the doughnut, the shoe that never drops, the sound of one hand clapping, the moon in reflection in the cold stream. It's there/not there at once. It's so . . . wonderful.

Shorn of its connection to the possibility of coherence, the movie was a giddy wonderland ride of primal joys and goober-instincts. It was so profoundly nothing, I fell in hopeless love with its gaudy surface, its glittery superficiality, its utter alienation from anything true about the world.

Cruise: Earnest, humorless, appearing to believe that which is before him (as nobody else could), he slides through the preposterous screenplay (some hugger-mugger about an arms dealer who's obtained the "Mousetrap," a WMD so terrifying the scriptwriters didn't even know what it was) with cosmetic cuts and bruises, attracting the love of all men and all women. Mentor, son, hero and jock, he's every man's ideal self and he's so . . . boring . . . he's wonderful. He's the perfect "O" in the center of all the shenanigans. You don't have to pay him a whisper of attention. His job was to say yes, attract the financing and let the movie go on about him.

The team: First, there's some British guy who didn't make an impression. Second, there's Ving Rhames as Luther, the African American in the cast for street cred and demographic savvy; he does nothing but sit in a van at a terminal talking into a phone all day. I could do that! I love the way the movie squanders his talents, as it does Laurence Fishburne's in the snippy, aristo intelligence mandarin role that until a few years ago would have been played by any of a dozen white actors who looked like Dean Acheson. The waste, the sheer sloppage of talent and genius: It's wonderful. Only in America.

Then there's Maggie Q, an actress heretofore unknown to me; she's the only person in the movie who can be said to be charming or remotely human. She doesn't have a 10th of the screen time her beauty and wit command, but possibly this film will be her conduit to the bigger, better films she deserves. Loved it when she squealed and cringed, schoolgirl-like, as she detonated the Ferrari in front of the Vatican -- though you wonder why any movie would require a Ferrari to be exploded in front of the Vatican.


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