The high-octane juice auds crave in big-budget action films surges propulsively through "Mission: Impossible III." Debuting director J.J. Abrams orchestrates the billion-dollar franchise's requisite elements with skill and energy, delivering a picture that will serve its purpose in getting Paramount's summer B.O. season off to a bang-up start.

The high-octane juice audiences crave in big-budget action films surges propulsively through “Mission: Impossible III,” in large measure due to Tom Cruise, who seems determined to give a persuasive human impersonation of a Ferrari. He succeeds to an almost alarming degree. Debuting director J.J. Abrams orchestrates the billion-dollar franchise’s requisite elements with skill and energy, delivering a picture that will serve its purpose in getting Paramount’s — and the industry’s — summer B.O. season off to a bang-up start.

Series devotees will be forced to nitpick when arguing the relative merits of this new picture versus the previous two. Brian De Palma’s original, which came out a decade ago, featured more bravura visual flair despite its narrative confusion, while the hyper-kineticism of John Woo’s 2000 follow-up wore out its welcome before the script concluded.

For all its far-fetched formulations, this new entry maintains more of a dramatic throughline and has the bonus of a villain played with unsparing meanness by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Initial installment in the series generated $454 million worldwide, while the second upped the kitty to $545 million; in both instances, revenues were notably higher overseas than domestically.

Opening teaser has Hoffman’s Owen Davian with a gun to a young woman’s head, promising to kill her unless Cruise’s agent Ethan Hunt, bound to a nearby chair, reveals the whereabouts of a certain “rabbit’s foot.” The latter is a classic MacGuffin that will be sought and referred to throughout, as Hunt and his team zoom around the ever-diminishing world trying to eliminate the threat it represents.

With Lalo Schifrin’s original TV theme music again setting the tone, and Michael Giacchino’s new score falling adroitly in step behind it, action flips back to Virginia, where Ethan is enjoying an engagement party with fiancee Julia (Michelle Monaghan) and pals. As James Bond once did, Ethan has decided to settle down, his bride-to-be ignorant of his profession.

Domestic life lasts about five minutes, however, as Ethan has little choice but to accept a mission to rescue a woman he’s trained (Keri Russell) who’s been abducted in Berlin. Joining old mate Luther (Ving Rhames) and new recruits Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen (Maggie Q), Ethan finds the young woman in a derelict factory virtually comatose. In a moment that is both dramatically ludicrous and the epitome of what the series is all about, Ethan zaps her with an adrenalin injection, whereupon she instantly snaps into action hero form, offing baddies left and right.

Explosive Berlin sequence is capped by a nocturnal helicopter battle staged amid a forest of wind turbines that looks suspiciously like the one in the desert outside Palm Springs.

A Stateside visit lasts just long enough for Ethan’s boss (Laurence Fishburne) to inform him that Davian, a ruthless arms dealer engaged in selling weapons to North Korea and Arab terrorists, will be selling the “rabbit’s foot” in Rome.

Italian interlude marks the film’s high point, as it allows the Impossible Mission Force its greatest opportunity for subterfuge, surprise and disguise, none better than when Ethan, wearing a mask of Davian during a glittering Vatican function, steals the rabbit’s foot and kidnaps the crook. Even captivity doesn’t diminish Davian’s insolence, however, and soon the tables are turned on Ethan and his crew in a spectacular ambush on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Working with Abrams, scenarists Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, whose feature work on the lamentable “The Island” and “The Legend of Zorro” is perhaps balanced somewhat by their collaboration with their boss on “Alias,” provide no surprises either when the unwitting Julia is finally put in extreme jeopardy, or when an outrageous Shanghai heist raises the meaning of “impossible” to new heights.

Job demands that Ethan swing like Tarzan between towering Shanghai skyscrapers, engage in a gun battle between speeding vehicles on the city’s crowded streets and find an obscure location amid back alleys and canals where the final action is played out. Stunt work here is impressive, with kudos due vet stunt coordinator and second unit director Vic Armstrong.

This is a film in which the line between first and second units becomes invisible, so pervasive and dominant is the pulsating action and sense of movement. Even in the relatively quiet scenes, Abrams’ direction is defined first by an impulse toward comprehensive coverage and second by a need to keep the camera on the prowl. Fortunately, this tendency is kept within bounds, so the picture doesn’t go into numbing overdrive, but visual style is rather more utilitarian than that fashioned by either De Palma or Woo.

Cruise has bumped his intensity up a notch this time out, scorching through the picture in a manner that seems restrained only in comparison to his appearance on a certain television talkshow last year. Given how little his cohorts get to do, it’s useful to have a screen presence like that of Rhames, or the newcomer sizzle of Hong Kong actress-model Maggie Q to score some immediate points; by contrast, the little-used Rhys Meyers gets lost in the shuffle.

Fishburne gets off a couple of good authority blasts, while Simon Pegg makes the most of his fleeting but key moments as a motor-mouthed agency analyst.

As for Hoffman, his stature as a superior actor invests his scenes with a special weight and interest. On the other hand, his involvement hasn’t been fully exploited. That Hoffman, with his blond locks and moderate girth, bears a superficial resemblance to Gert Frobe, the actor who played Goldfinger, is brought to mind by a startling scene in which Ethan threateningly dangles Davian out of a private jet, a scene that recalls the manner of the villain’s death in the third Bond film.

What the comparison points up is how this picture denies Hoffman a chance to fully express his character’s personality, to show a little nuance, a mentality behind the evil, some humor or self-awareness behind the malevolence, or to toy with Ethan beyond the simple threat. If you have an actor like Hoffman on board, you’d think it would behoove the writers to cook up at least one big scene to let the man loose to really do his thing.

Production values are all supercharged in line with the tenor of the production. Locations effectively span the continents as well as the centuries, with Caserta, once again effectively doubling for the Vatican, representing the past, high-tech U.S. locales holding down the present and millennial Shanghai providing a look at the future.

Mission: Impossible III

Production

A Paramount release of a Cruise/Wagner production. Produced by Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner. Executive producer, Stratton Leopold. Co-producer, Arthur Anderson. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Screenplay, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Abrams, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Dan Mindel; editors, Mary Jo Markey, Maryann Brandon; music, Michael Giacchino; music supervisor, Danny Bramson; production designer, Scott Chambliss; supervising art director, Dan Dorrance; art directors, Dennis Bradford, Gary Kosko, Kevin Kavanaugh, Sean Haworth, Domenic Silvestri, Brad Ricker; set designers, J. Andre Chaintreuil, Andrew Reeder, Scott Zuber, Timothy Earls, Mark Lucero, Stella Vaccaro, Roy Barnes; set decorator, Karen Manthey; costume designer, Colleen Atwood; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Jeff Wexler; re-recording mixers, Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer; supervising sound editor, Mark Stoeckinger; sound designer, Alan Rankin; special visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic; visual effects supervisor, Roger Guyett; special effects coordinator, Dan Sudick; makeup designer-supervisor, Michele Burke; assistant director, Tommy Gormley; second unit director-stunt coordinator, Vic Armstrong; second unit camera, Stephen St. John, C. Mitchell Amundsen; casting, April Webster. Reviewed at Paramount Studios, Los Angeles, April 26, 2006. (In Tribeca Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 125 MIN.

With

Ethan Hunt - Tom Cruise Owen Davian - Philip Seymour Hoffman Luther - Ving Rhames Musgrave - Billy Crudup Julia - Michelle Monaghan Declan - Jonathan Rhys Meyers Lindsey Farris - Keri Russell Zhen - Maggie Q Benji - Simon Pegg Brownway - Eddie Marsan Theodore Brassel - Laurence Fishburne

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