Mission: Impossible III

Mission: Impossible III
Dir. J.J. Abrams, U.S., 2006
Paramount, $29.99

Mission: Impossible III's no-past weapons/info dealer Owen Davian, as created by writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and J.J. Abrams, and actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, deserves—nay, requires—some kind of illuminating prequel spin-off. Because Davian is the most oblique Hollywood action film heavy this year, based purely on his unrepentant non-dimensionality.

No, no, not one-dimensional: non-dimensional. Davian is devoid of the prevailing qualities of most modern villainy—grandiosity, wit, sophistication (see: the Bond movie world dominators and the faux-heroic Hannibal Lecter), and/or an audience-identifiable past/ideology that are grafted on to give stature to the antagonist. (See too: Vincent the jazz-appreciating philosophical hit man in Collateral, the disgruntled ex-general in The Rock, numerous domestic and foreign terrorists with their gripes and jihads). With these decorations subtracted and nothing more added, what remains is a distilled meanness comprised of action and threat. He's only just a recognizably human character, and maybe he qualifies there only because he's, in fact, a character played by a human. “What's his motivation,” an actor might ask. Simple. His motivations are to antagonize our hero, IMF Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), and to possess the Rabbit's Foot, a MacGuffinesque doomsday what-have-you. He has no “back story.” He has no “vulnerability” or “humanizing moments.” (Does a hurricane have either?) He physically exists only in a scant four scenes. (Two other scenes feature Davian threatening Hunt over the phone: Punch-Drunk Love’s Mattress Man elevated to a global scale.) He feels zeros and ones, and expresses himself in flat statements (“You hung me out of an airplane; you can always tell someone's character by the way they treat those they don't need to treat well”) and hectoring questions (“Where the hell is it?”). Character development? For Davian, it is deciding who to shoot first: Hunt or his lady love, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). His is a personality as steadfast as the illegal arms trade itself.

Hoffman, capital-A actor of complex personalities, understands this, and dig it as he underplays the already downplayed character in this script-sympathetic performance. Often he restricts himself to a few choice acting tools: a monotone, a yell, a slight lip curl, a headshake, a few punches and kicks. And a slightly beseeching tone for this exchange, Hoffman/Davian's most heartfelt moment in the picture:

Davian: “You have a wife, girlfriend?”

Hunt: “It's up to you how this goes.”

Davian: “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, and 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.”

There are no Hopperian founts of cathartic anger (for the actor and the audience), nor any play-to-the-cheap-seats personability, à la Hopkins—only a malevolent, amoral blankness, embodied with misanthropic physicality. Midway through the film, Davian attends an upper-crust soiree at the Vatican, where he's to buy information on the Rabbit's Foot, and it's through the lens of the square community he's been dropped into that his particular movements radiate most brilliantly. Davian/Hoffman treads through the crowd silently with an antisocial gait, the outline of his paunch through his tux a beacon of entitlement, halting momentarily to take a drink off a waiter's tray with the most abrupt and curt of grabs. Later, after he's procured the information and is leaving the party (how'd he get there, anyway?), an attractive IMF agent (Maggie Q) disguised as a partygoer “accidentally” spills wine on his shirt. Faced with an awkward person-to-person interaction that he can't merely kill his way out of, Davian/Hoffman responds with a pained almost-smile and passive-aggression: “It's fine, it's fine, I always spill red wine on my white custom-made shirt,” he says, and irritably trudges toward the john. That almost-smile, like a certain conscious blink toward a pleading Ethan, like his lip curling slightly up at the sunny remembrance of putting an explosive charge in someone's head, is Davian at his most base, and Hoffman at his most exacting—it's the feral twitching of the willfully inhumane.

About that spin-off: How about Young Mr. Davian, a slice o' life glimpse of the younger and only slightly more vulnerable years of our favorite glum, homicidal mystery man, maybe selling guns to high schoolers in between watching VH-1 in his apartment (wearing a Bloody Mary–stained Hawaiian shirt) and going to therapy? Co-starring Elliott Gould as the therapist!

Available in separate one- and two-disc editions (the former reviewed here), the special features on Mission: Impossible III's DVD finally confirm what this nation's moviegoing public has so long suspected: that there is rarely a more nourishing, rollicking good-time to be had than making a globe-spanning triple-digit-costing installment of a name-recognizable film franchise. Both the Cruise and Abrams commentary track and the half-hour “The Making of the Mission” featurette are shout-out and back-patting affairs, with the two of them charitably waxing every car on the Paramount lot. Of interest: Cruise's casual Eyes Wide Shut tidbit early in the commentary, and the dichotomy of theater-bum Hoffman chatting briefly in front of footage of the brutish Davian in the featurette. (The bitchier members of our readership will surely get a half-second guffaw from Cruise signing off the commentary with “Thank you, Paramount.”) Also on the disc are five Davian-free deleted scenes of time-coded video quality, and the cryptically named “Excellence in Film,” a montage of St. Thomas's Greatest Hits made in 2005 by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in honor of Cruise receiving their “Stanley Kubrick Britannia Award for Excellence in Film.” Kudos to whomever chose to include his “Darwin, I-Ching, shit happens” bit from Collateral, and also to the wise-ass who slipped in the beginning of “Sympathy for the Devil” over cuts of our star's early years. —ANDY STARK