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Third ‘Mission: Impossible’ still has the stuff

Yes, it’s an absurd, unrealistic fantasy, but isn’t that the point?

Who really cares if the plot of “The Big Sleep” makes sense? Or if the storylines of “Vertigo” or “Donnie Darko” fail to convince? If you respond to these movies, you do so in spite of their gravity-defying leaps in narrative logic. It’s the star chemistry or the sense of mystery or the tease that keeps you watching.

The “Mission: Impossible” movies are something else. They clearly thrive on audience lust for outlandish plot twists, outrageously spectacular stunts and Spiderman-scale heroics — not to mention the deployment of high-tech face masks and voice simulators that allow for patently ridiculous identity theft.

The harder it is to believe what these characters do, the more the audience applauds (and the higher the international grosses grow). The series long ago left the relatively earthbound James Bond in the dust. The latest installment, “Mission: Impossible III,” is just as certifiable as the earlier entries. The crazier it gets, the more contagious the fun becomes.

It’s been 10 years since Tom Cruise’s first “Mission: Impossible” movie, derived from the 1960s/1970s television series, started a wide-screen franchise of its own. The first sequel turned up in 2000, “III” is now in theaters, and still hardly anyone can sort out the narratives and tell you what the movies are about.

“III,” directed and co-written by “Lost” and “Alias” creator J.J. Abrams, puts Cruise’s ingenious espionage veteran, Ethan Hunt, in a situation that is intended to reveal what kind of person he is at 40. Abrams and his co-writers have promised a more personal, less plotty approach to the franchise.

Instead, they’ve created yet another action-jammed, character-thin espionage thriller with a cipher in the center. In the 2000 sequel, Hunt just wanted an uninterrupted vacation. Six years later, he’s trying to retire and get married, but he’s pulled back into the force, in order to help the desperate Lindsey (Keri Russell), the most talented agent he ever trained.

She’s been kidnapped by a vicious black marketeer, Owen Davian (suavely nasty Philip Seymour Hoffman), who means to do her great harm. Apparently he also commands an army large enough to invade Afghanistan; their attack on a vulnerable bridge plays like a World War II epic. It doesn’t take much more than Davian’s threats to get Hunt to abandon his girlfriend, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), and deploy a fresh team of agents to rescue Lindsey.

Back to cheer him on (and jealously question the suitability of his fiancee) is tech expert Luther (Ving Rhames), who played the same role in the earlier films. New to the series is their fierce boss, John Brassel (Laurence Fishburne). Fishburne is blessed with one of the best-written scenes, in which his character delivers a blistering assessment of the failures of Hunt and another agent, Musgrave (Billy Crudup).

Also along for the ride are teammates Zhen (Maggie Q) and Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who don’t get nearly enough to do. Although Declan has a gift for languages and Zhen can fake it as an elegant party girl, the actors are used almost entirely for their exotic looks.

The name of Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”) is for the first time missing from the screenplay credits, which now includes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the team that came up with two of last year’s major disappointments: “The Legend of Zorro” and “The Island.”

Perhaps Towne would have made better use of the supporting cast. Perhaps he would also have done a more convincing job of setting up the spy team’s invasions of Vatican City, where they stalk Davian while he’s attending a party, and Shanghai, where Davian is luring Hunt. The Shanghai episode provides the pre-credits opener to the movie, which is essentially one long flashback.

There’s always a point in each “Mission: Impossible” movie in which the improbable becomes clearly impossible, and the picture drifts into — no, embraces — pure fantasy. It usually has something to do with those ridiculous masks, which have become increasingly gimmicky and hard to buy. Or it may be the stunts, which need too much help from Industrial Light & Magic to come off as credible.

You may remember the train-and-helicopter chase from the first film, directed by Brian de Palma, but can you say how it fit into the plot? David Koepp, who shared the screenplay credit with Towne, complained that “we had a lot of cooks on that one, which is not good for a movie. The fax machines were humming. It was terribly unsatisfying; the scattering of viewpoints was damaging.”

So why did it become one of the three top-grossing movies of 1996, snagging $180 million and topping the American ticket sales of Cruise’s own “Jerry Maguire” by quite a margin? According to Cahiers du Cinema, it’s really quite simple: the movie “makes of Brian de Palma the key analyst of the transformation of our society into a civilization of image and technology.” Overseas, it did even better, collecting an additional $275 million.

John Woo’s “Mission: Impossible II” is best-remembered for Cruise’s gravity-defying cliff-climbing episode — and little else. Some critics spotted elements of Hitchcock’s “Notorious” and “To Catch a Thief” in the Cruise/Thandie Newton love affair, but more common was Variety’s verdict: “even more empty a luxury vehicle than its predecessor ...[it] pushes the envelope in terms of just how much flashy packaging an audience will buy when there’s absolutely nada inside.”

Has anyone been able to sit through Cruise and Dougray Scott’s climactic motorcycle duel in “II” without laughing out loud? Perhaps the series has produced something truly new: action-movie spectacle that closely resembles slapstick. “III” carries on the tradition, especially during the final final half hour, which requires remarkable gun play on the part of a character who has few qualification for nailing bad guys.

Still, Woo’s “II” clearly topped the box-office success of the original. It was also one of the three top-grossing movies of its year, handily beating that year’s Oscar winners, “Gladiator” and “Erin Brockovich,” in ticket sales. In the U.S., it collected $215 million. Overseas, it made $330 million more.

Hence, “Mission: Impossible III.”