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Action love story? That's impossible.

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As secret agent Ethan Hunt in "Mission: Impossible III," Tom Cruise gets to show off his "vulnerable" side, which means that for a total of maybe five minutes, his gritted teeth and laser stare are toned down a tad.

Cruise's sleek professionalism as a performer generally carries over into his movies, many of which he produces, and "M:I:III" is no exception. It's an expertly engineered popcorn movie - hold the butter substitute - but it also tries (and fails) to be a love story for the ages.

As the film begins, Ethan has retired from active service in the Impossible Mission Force but, of course, keeps signing on for new missions anyway. He is also set to marry the love of his life, a smiley nurse named Julia (Michelle Monaghan). "Our approach," director and co-writer J.J. Abrams was quoted as saying, "is not to make a movie about a spy, but to tell a story about a man who is a spy."

This man has no trouble keeping a straight face while telling Julia that he works as a traffic manager for the Department of Transportation. (Couldn't he at least have said that he works for Homeland Security?) "M:I:III" resembles "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" except that here the wife is a non-pro (i.e., clueless). When Ethan returns home without a scratch - after a rough night with his buddies blowing things sky high and being chased by rocket-launching attack planes and attempting to extract an implanted bomb from the brain of one of his agents - all he can say to Julia is that he's kind of bushed and that he needs her to trust him. And she falls for it. If this union ever goes on the rocks, I pity the poor marriage counselor.

The effort to turn Ethan into a real live human being instead of a just a lethal acrobat never really succeeds. Probably just as well. After all, who really wants to see Tom Cruise get all vulnerable? As an actor he has two modes: Intense and intenser. This is what makes him a forceful presence in his movies and, ultimately, such an uninteresting one. The "M:I:III" series, minus the heart tugs, is in his most effective range. He reportedly even did many of his own stunts (none of which involve couch jumping).


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