Mission: Impossible III

People have begun to notice lately that movies are in decline while TV shows are becoming more impressive in their scope and size — more like what movies are supposed to be, in other words. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Mission: Impossible III,” a sleek, preposterous adventure directed by “Lost” and “Alias” creator J.J. Abrams that is essentially no better than what Abrams showcases every week on “Alias,” or what his colleagues at “24” manage over the course of a season.

Yes, “This movie is as good as a TV show!” is now a perfectly valid compliment, and “M:I-3” earns it. Abrams’ first foray to the big screen has several thrilling action sequences, some witty dialogue, and one or two … OK, not “surprises,” exactly (if you watch much TV, you’ll spot them early), but pleasant “twists,” anyway. The major question is why you would pay $10 to watch two hours of what you already get for free on TV, but that’s not my department.

It’s been six years since we last saw Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), secret agent for the Impossible Missions Force, and his personal life has changed dramatically. He’s in love! True, googly-eyed, couch-jumping love. His betrothed is Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a nurse who is unaware of Ethan’s super-secret private life. She thinks he works for the Virginia Department of Transportation, when really he’s a gay Scientologist. Er, secret-agent, I mean.

On the night of their engagement party, Ethan is summoned back into action by his handler, Musgrave (Billy Crudup). His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to rescue fellow agent Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell) from the clutches of black-market weapons dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). That task quickly evolves into the larger job of pursuing Davian and preventing him from putting an apocalyptic weapon nicknamed the Rabbit’s Foot into the wrong (i.e., non-American) hands.

Ethan is accompanied by teammates Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, the only other character to return from the previous films), Zhen (Maggie Q) and Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). They banter coolly while engaging in high-tech espionage, and are often aided by I.T. geek Benji (Simon Pegg), who is one of many elements of the film to remind me of “Alias.” (There’s even a brief appearance by Abrams’ long-time friend Greg Grunberg.)

Davian is given the perfect dose of smarmy evil by Hoffman, both sadistic and snivelly, so that you’re not sure whether to shoot him in the head or just smack him in the face. (The comeuppance he does get is gratifying, to say the least.) He threatens Ethan’s life, of course, but more alarming to the secret agent is Davian’s determination to get personal by going after Julia.

The emotional dimension doesn’t really work on Ethan Hunt, maybe because Cruise is too much in action-hero mode to pay it the proper attention, and maybe because Cruise’s offscreen persona as a ranting nutcase has finally overtaken his screen personality and made it impossible to take him seriously. Or maybe because it’s so obvious: The hero’s wife or girlfriend ALWAYS comes into jeopardy in these things. I’d be surprised if she didn’t.

But the film is deliciously fun when it sticks to nifty gadgets, impossible technology and thrilling action sequences. Abrams, co-writing with “Alias” scribes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, treads familiar ground with the story and structure (he even has regular collaborator Michael Giacchino do the musical score), but he treads it nimbly and enthusiastically, like a really smart kid in a really nice candy store.

He directs the hell out of those action scenes, too, with daring camerawork and sharp editing that belie his inexperience with big-screen adventures. You won’t believe a minute of it, but you’ll certainly smile at the infectious high-spirited energy of it all.

B (2 hrs., 6 min.; PG-13, a few profanities, plenty of action violence.)