Why am I writing a "Retro Review" of a movie that's barely six years old? The reason is twofold:
1. I hadn't seen Mission: Impossible: III (actual title) since it first arrived on home video.
2. I had recently watched Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, which is the closest thing to a "direct sequel" that you're going to find in the series, and while I had a comfortable grasp of the characters who appeared or were mentioned, watching that film really made me want to revisit the previous entry.
The Cap'n had not planned on seeing Mission: Impossible: III, the directorial debut of J.J. Abrams (Lost, Felicity), because of my lukewarm feelings about the first two M:I films. While having no real connection to the show, I had seen Brian DePalma's Mission: Impossible in high school and generally liked it but was totally unimpressed with John Woo's Mission: Impossible II, a hollow and pointless exercise in slow motion action and motorcycle-fu. The latter held sway in my mind over the former, so there didn't seem to be much of a point watching the third film in a series I wasn't that invested in.
It wasn't until I started hearing good things about the sequel, combined with my affinity for Dinosaur Island that I thought I'd give it a shot. Good call, it turns out.
The "drop you in the middle of the narrative without context" is something that I associate with Abrams, mostly through Lost, but one could argue that Star Trek pulls a similar narrative conceit by opening with the arrival of Nero before we even know what Federation ship we're seeing him destroy. It's a refreshing break from the action set pieces from the first film (entire team wiped out) and the second (extreme rock climbing) that focuses on character over mimicking the 007 series. It's not the only way that Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman improve on the M:I franchise.
From my recollection, the first two Mission: Impossible films were largely the Tom Cruise show, featuring "the team," of which I can only recall Ving Rhames being a constant. Other people showed up to betray Ethan Hunt or to be (I love this term) "Estevez'ed". M:I:III, on the other hand, centers in on the concept that the team is important and that Ethan might lead the group, but he needs everybody to carry out the mission (should he choose to accept it). Unlike the first two films, I can remember every part of the IMF team in III: Ving Rhames returns as Luther, Johnathan Rhys-Meyers is Duncan, Maggie Q is Zhen, and in a cameo appearance, Simon Pegg enters the series as Benji. Instead of having one assigned "role," everybody works as a unit to ensure that covert operations like invading Vatican City go off smoothly. It's a refreshing break from the "hero with some window dressing" I remembered (this also applies to Ghost Protocol, but I'll get to that in a few days).
This is not to say that there isn't some familiarity: Abrams sneaks in his "good luck charm" Greg Grunberg early in the film during Ethan and Julia's engagement (?) party, and Felicity herself, Keri Russell, has the distinction of being the "pupil of Hunt who gets captured and introduces the lethal threat," a bomb inside your head, that kicks off the film. Hoffman is a merciless arms dealer as Davian, unafraid of Hunt even in the face of death, promising to punish him and anyone he cares about for having the gall to catch him. The Rabbit's Foot, a MacGuffin to say the least, is the focus of everybody's attention, from Hunt's team to Davian to Director Brassel (Laurence Fishburne) and deputy director Musgrave (Billy Crudup), but Agent Lindsey Farris (Russell) alerts Ethan that a mole in IMF is working for the other side.
All of this comes at a fast and furious pace, and the film never feels like two hours. The action is easy to follow (quite a feat considering that the Bourne Supremacy ushered in "shaky cam" two years before) and the stunts are mostly practical. Even a rooftop leap in Shanghai that was mostly green-screen involved Cruise taking a considerable fall before being mapped onto the background. The film is more accomplished, story-wise, than Star Trek, with actual stakes being introduced when Hunt loses Ferris and then (we think) Julia, but there's a similar breezy charm in the middle of the film and at the end that keeps things from being too dour.
In particular, I like to point out the scene where Hunt (disguised at Davian) and Zhen drop off a crucial briefcase to Luther. The way that Hoffman delivers the line "what's up?" still makes me chuckle, almost as much as Monaghan's reaction to what IMF is an acronym for. Actually, in general I also would like to point out that despite the fact everybody had it in for Tom Cruise around that time, he's still essential to the success of the M:I films and handles it admirably.
Watching the film again, I was surprised how caught up I was all over again, even as the twists and turns of M:I:III started coming back. It's a very entertaining action film in a way that I don't remember the first or second film being, and because of that I welcomed Brad Bird's live action debut with Ghost Protocol. I'm glad I did, but I'll get to that later. It is fair that you don't have to see M:I:III again to enjoy Ghost Protocol, but the end of the fourth film benefits greatly from being up to speed on who's who in the third film.