Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.
“I’m going to count to ten.” Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a gun to Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Her husband, spy-guy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is duct-taped to a chair. “You’re going to tell me where the Rabbit’s Foot is, or she dies,” Davian explains, calmly. He points the gun at Julia’s head, and Cruise looks genuinely terrified. Say what you will, but Mission: Impossible III makes quite the first impression — because Philip Seymour Hoffman is fucking scary.
We quickly flash-back: Ethan Hunt, an agent of the “Impossible Mission Force,” has retired from fieldwork so he can settle down with his spouse, a nurse he met while they were both doing an extreme, helicopter-related sport (obviously). In his directorial debut, J.J. Abrams reimagines this high-flying, explicitly over-the-top franchise as something closer to his ABC series Alias. It works better than it should.
See, Tom Cruise is a maniac. This man’s deeply involved with a cult, and at the same time, on an endless quest to risk his life for our enjoyment. Yet in talk shows and even a few on-screen roles, Cruise is asked to perform normalcy. It never quite lands. Behind that perfect grin, it always feels like you’re looking at a true oddball (if that’s even the word).
With Mission: Impossible III, this dissonance is incorporated into the text, and Cruise’s character. In that second scene – Ethan and Julia’s engagement party – we learn that Julia and their friends all think Cruise works for the Department of Traffic. He’s pretending to be a regular guy, and he seems happy. But then Ethan reads Julia’s lips to overhear her conversation from across the room, and you sense he can’t perform normal for long. The maniac must come out.
This is Abrams’ big breakthrough. As his Star Wars-es have proven, J.J.’s never been a filmmaker with an actual aesthetic, only an imitation of one (unlike the prior folks behind the M:I camera, Brian De Palma and John Woo). What III lacks with its generic dark shaky-cam, it nearly makes up for with strong set-up: across the six – soon to be seven – entries in the series, this is the most I’ve ever cared about Ethan Hunt. Cruise may be a weirdo, but as his couch-jumping also proved, he can sell that he cares about someone.
Then again, you don’t watch a Mission: Impossible movie for Ethan Hunt and his relationships – “Hunt” exists as an excuse for Cruise to hang off the side of an airplane or climb the world’s tallest building. Again, III stumbles in this department: an early rescue operation turned helicopter chase verges on incomprehensible, and the final act revolves around a device in Ethan’s head instead of a gonzo set-piece. A semi-heist at the Vatican doesn’t reach the heights of De Palma’s Langley mission in the original, but it’s not too shabby. Afterward, ensuing double-crosses and IMF plots feel rote (Billy Crudup, who I praised to kingdom come last week, lies largely wasted here).
In other words, turning Hunt into a wife guy only gets you so far. But M:I:III also boasts the best villain the franchise has ever featured. We don’t know much about Owen Davian, aside from the fact that he’s a black market weapons dealer and he seems like a jerk. We never even learn what Davian’s McGuffin, “The Rabbit’s Foot,” actually does.
But gosh, Hoffman makes this part sing. After Davian’s kidnapped by Ethan and his team, he’s questioned at 30,000 feet by Hunt. He’s unphased: “what the hell is your name?” asks Davian, “do you have a wife, a girlfriend?” Ethan tries to steer the conversation back towards Davian’s business – Davian ignores him and describes how as soon as he escapes, he’s going to hurt whoever Ethan cares about.
Hoffman’s so matter-of-fact, refusing to betray an ounce of fear until Ethan dangles him outside the airplane – even then, he doesn’t break. Davian’s so cold, and lacking any honor. You can tell from the way he turns the interrogation back on his captors that this is a man who will do anything, hurt anyone, to get what he wants.
Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Abrams can’t write character exposition this effective – nothing matches a series of close-ups on Hoffman snarling, staring Cruise in the face. The actor finds a quiet sadism, without going too loud. But Hoffman also makes an intimidating physical presence: he and Cruise spar at the climax, and by that point, you buy that Davian could go toe-to-toe with Ethan Hunt.
I’m honestly not sure why Hoffman took this role at this point in his career (he’d won an Oscar the year before III released), and he wouldn’t play an antagonist like this again. If you need further proof that J.J. Abrams isn’t a very good filmmaker, ask yourself why there aren’t more than two scenes of Davian delivering dialogue – they’re easily the film’s most memorable moments. You could even argue that Davian’s too scary for a PG-13 summer blockbuster – Mission: Impossible isn’t a horror series, after all.
After lower-than-expected box office grosses, Paramount considered rebooting the franchise until Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol got things back on track. Mission: Impossible III has its charms, but Hoffman was slumming it in a work that probably didn’t deserve him (and certainly runs fifteen minutes too long). I can’t help but imagine what Hoffman could’ve added to a Mission: Impossible movie that played to the series’ strengths; as it stands, P.S.H. elevates nobody’s favorite.