Finding the Rabbit’s Foot: The J.J. Abrams Equation in Mission: Impossible III
After Mission: Impossible 2 immediately redefined the series as an action director's playground, Tom Cruise sought a new voice to bring something different to the series. After being unable to lock down David Fincher and Joe Carnahan, Cruise discovered the hit series Alias, and after binge-watching the first two seasons, it was clear to him that J.J. Abrams was going to be the right fit for the franchise. Hot off the success of several hit television shows in the early 2000s, Abrams found himself the perfect match for Cruise and Mission: Impossible III.
In case you're wondering why this feels like a high-budget episode of Alias, you have J.J. Abrams and his, at the time, writing team, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci as credited screenwriters. The trio were a major driving force of the espionage series, and Abrams' directorial debut takes some major plot cues from that pilot episode. Both the character of Sydney Bristow in Alias and Ethan Hunt are torn between some semblance of normality and the spy-life. Tragically, Sydney remains a more complex character due to several seasons of high-quality action television. Ethan, on the other hand, rarely has time to acknowledge the plotting nature of his blockbuster adventures.
As such, Abrams stories often rely on some mysterious driving force. A mystery that propels the audience through saturated environments, physical confrontations and heightened emotional realizations. The "Mystery Box" is exciting but none of it truly matters until we understand how it impacts the characters and their relationships. Enter: The J.J. Abrams Equation.
What is the J.J. Abrams Equation? It relies on: 1) Making the audience care about the characters. 2) Injecting the audience into relentless action set pieces. 3) Not getting wrapped up in the nonsensical "plot" of it all.
M:I III even intrinsically ties that into an arc for Ethan Hunt! The plot revolves around a mysterious object known as The Rabbit's Foot. Nobody knows what it is. Everyone wants it. Especially Philip Seymour Hoffman as mysterious arms dealer, Owen Davian, who remains the high-water mark for villains of the Mission: Impossible series. It's a rare circumstance of arguable underwriting benefitting the overall film. Ethan's attempt to balance work and home collide against one of the greatest performers to ever grace our screens. Ethan is frazzled and sweating. Davian is stone-faced and calm, even when threatening everything about Ethan's life. "You have a wife? Girlfriend? ‘Cause you know what I'm gonna do next? I'm going to find her and I'm going to hurt her." If Ethan is the living manifestation of destiny – as Alec Baldwin refers to him in Rogue Nation – then Owen Davian is the living manifestation of "all work, no play." Ethan isn't even really a foe for Davian. Ethan's a fly in the ointment, a monkey in the wrench, a pain in the ass. It's a direct counterpoint to Ethan’s struggles to find that balance in his life. As the series progresses, we even see Ethan decide to take the route of Owen Davian and commit fully to his work. Unlike his nemesis, Ethan works not in spite of normality but because of it. He works to protect people, something Owen's career actively works against.
It's that same high-octane energy Ethan Hunt is known for that makes M:I III the perfect Abrams action vehicle. To help capture that energy, Abrams sought assistance from action cinematographer Daniel Mindel. A mainstay of several Tony Scott films (Enemy of the State, Domino) Mindel's work focuses on the hyper-frenetic nature of action. Sweat glistens in confined corridors, the neon saturation sears through the Hong Kong nightlife and the chases are more pulse-pounding than ever before. It’s like a fever dream chugged a monster energy drink and shot itself through a projector. While there are arguably better, more well-rounded entries in the series, no film is able to capture Tom Cruise running in the completely visceral and direct manner as M:I III. Across bridges, through hospitals, from government agents, across the entire continent of China. Before we even have a chance to question what is in the Rabbit’s Foot, we’re launched into another action tirade of bullets and stress. When we finally have the opportunity to discover the truth behind the mysterious MacGuffin, Ethan decides to close that chapter of his life. Instead, he walks into a pleasant midlife retirement with the most important person in his life. How fleeting the moment is remains irrelevant; it’s honest.
Mission: Impossible III is a shot of pure adrenaline disguising a movie about an identity crisis and the most important relationships in the life of Ethan Hunt. Now, let's go watch that gif of Tom Cruise getting flung against a car for the millionth time.