Mission: Impossible III (12A)
Fateless (12A)

The biggest bang yet

We could spend a lot of time here batting around the various implausibilities of plotting and action, the dubious moral assumptions that underpin the film's worldview, and the question of why much of it was shot on location in China (recognition of shifting geopolitical realities, or just to make Tom Cruise look taller?). But I'm guessing you are more interested in a concise view on whether this latest instalment delivers the bangs for your buck. So yes, it does: all the bangs you could possibly want and, more surprisingly, delivered with a sense of narrative rhythm and even restraint. In this respect, Mission: Impossible 3 is a step forward for the franchise: indeed, a step forward for the big-budget Hollywood action spectacular generally.

The film opens on a high note, with a beaten, bloody Cruise strapped into a chair while a blond-coiffed Philip Seymour Hoffman threatens to do terrible things to a pretty woman unless Cruise reveals to him the whereabouts of something called "the rabbit's foot". The whole scene throbs with a teasing tension, the tease exacerbated by the abrupt manner in which it is shut down to make way for the inevitable theme tune. After that, the action moves into flashback mode.

Ethan Hunt, Cruise's espionage superman, having retired from the field to train agents, has found time to develop a romantic life (his domestic happiness provides most of the film's few dull moments). In any case, things soon pick up: Ethan gets a phonecall offering him the chance of an all-expenses paid trip to Mexico. This is the coded message that will open the door once more to a world of mayhem and betrayal.

One of Hunt's trainees has been kidnapped by the man she was shadowing, an arms dealer named Owen Davian (Hoffman); Hunt's mission, should he choose to accept it, is to fly to Berlin to pluck her from the flames. To help him, he yet again has Luther Stickell, Ving Rhames's loyal wise-ass techno-whiz, this time assisted by Declan, a reckless Irish smoothie played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Maggie Q's oriental beauty Zhen, both parts somewhat underwritten.

The subsequent twists and turns of the story needn't concern us here, though not because I'm worried about giving the game away. The director, JJ Abrams, was the creative force behind the TV series Lost and Alias, but the television series that springs to mind here is 24, both in the sorts of pressure it brings to bear on its hero and in the repertoire of bluff and counter-bluff. I had to stop watching 24 because I'd got too used to the rhythm of it, and it stopped being surprising. But, as Hitchcock recognised in his dictum about letting the audience see the bomb ticking under the table, surprise is an overrated element in thrillers.

In his sense of what an audience needs to know, Abrams is a true Hitchcockian. The rabbit's foot, for example, remains what Hitchcock called a McGuffin, an undefined excuse around which a plot can revolve. Simon Pegg, in a well-judged supporting role as the team's Brit-born computer boffin, speculates that it is "the anti-God", a theoretical super-virus capable of destroying life on earth; alternatively, with a price-tag of $850m, it may just be "a very expensive bunny's appendage". The lack of interest in resolving the ambiguity is a gratifying sign of Abrams's confidence.

Even more gratifying, though, is the climactic burglary of a Shanghai skyscraper, in which the rabbit's foot is concealed. Here, Ethan has to swing his way on to the skyscraper's ski-slope roof, get inside, fight his way past several floors of highly trained guards, fight his way back up to the roof, and parachute down to a nearby park. It's going to be the biggest, fastest, craziest action sequence of a film that's packed with them (all of them, by the way, expertly choreographed and filmed), but, taking the franchise's "with one bound, Jack was free" logic to its conclusion, Abrams doesn't show what happens. Cruise is in, he's out: the in-between is, unbelievably, left to the audience's imagination.

In its final 15 minutes the film falls a little flat, and it is dismaying to find out that the inevitable mole's villainous motive is a wish to provoke the US into intervening more aggressively in the world's affairs - apparently, it doesn't count as intervention if you wear latex masks and use lasers. But the incidental pleasures are many: Hoffman, of course, as a convincingly bloodless sociopath, and Laurence Fishburne, amusement barely suppressed as Ethan's hardnosed desk-jockey boss.

To move from this adroit guff to Fateless, a film about the Holocaust with a screenplay by the Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz taken from his acknowledged masterpiece, seems, I know, like a piece of moral imbecility, for which I can only apologise.

But such ludicrous juxtapositions are an unavoidable feature of the film critic's job; and if we set aside moral intentions for a moment, the two films illustrate different approaches to the same problem - how to encompass narrative in pictures. In Mission: Impossible III, the narrative is crowded with incident, and the director's job is to match it with images as kinetically charged as possible. By contrast, the narrative of Fateless is deliberately stripped of incident; what the director, Lajos Koltai, has to convey is the slow accumulation of suffering through days and years.

The central figure is Gyurka Köves, who at 14 is rounded up with other Jewish boys in Budapest and sent first to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald, and, finally, to a smaller, "provincial" camp, Zeitz. Here, he is adopted by an older man, who teaches him the importance of cleanliness and self-esteem as tools for survival. But as the months wear on, his will to live is replaced with a solipsistic awareness of sensation - pain, cold, hunger; it seems to be mere chance, never explained, that he lasts until the camp is liberated by American troops.

What is deeply impressive about the film is its admission of seemingly inadmissible sentiments - the vengeful pleasure that a newly liberated Jew takes in contemplating the ruins of Dresden; Gyurka's discovery that even in the camps it was possible to feel a kind of happiness. But Koltai never quite finds a visual language to match the power of words. The most blatant device is a gradual bleaching away of colour: in Budapest, things have a sepia tint, but as Gyurka moves through the camp system, even that fades; in Zeitz, things have achieved the kind of silvered monochrome you see in the photographs of Sebastiao Salgado, investing human misery with a dignity that verges on kitsch. The arrival of the Americans brings a splash of sunshine, but the colour-scheme never properly recovers.

At odd times, the film is properly distressing - a remarkable sequence shows a camp parade at which the starving inmates, forced to stand all day, begin to sway, the whole phalanx rippling like corn in a field. But, for the most part, the sheened images seem to form a barrier between the audience and the experience. Perhaps the fault lies more with Ennio Morricone's lavish, emotionally bullying music, which cancels out all the reticence and nuance of the script. I don't want to imply that Fateless is a less skilled piece of film-making than, say, Mission:Impossible; rather, that it demon- strates the limitations of skill.

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