By Adam B. Vary
Updated December 27, 2006 05:00 AM

It would be a relief to be able to review Tom Cruise’s action-film spectacular Mission: Impossible III without also reviewing its place in the Tom Cruise movie-star-rehabilitation spectacular. But his spy franchise’s latest (and seemingly last) installment makes it nigh impossible.

For one, there’s really not much movie in this Mission. Its MacGuffin, a Big Gulp-size mystery weapon called the Rabbit’s Foot, is so inconsequential it’s laughable. (No wonder. In a commentary with Cruise, co-writer/director J.J. Abrams — who created the twisty spy series Alias — says his goal was to ”make it a joke.”) Yet the real story — can Cruise’s superagent Ethan Hunt have a lasting relationship with his wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan)? — is also hamstrung by nagging relatability problems. What we definitely know about Julia is that she (a) works in a hospital, (b) does not know Hunt’s real job, and (c) looks not unlike Cruise’s actual wife-to-be, Katie Holmes. That vacuum could easily lead us to wonder whether the film is really asking this: Can global superstar Cruise have a lasting relationship with Holmes? (For those keeping track, ”Kate” is mentioned three times in the extras, always in reference to her pregnancy with then-unnamed baby Suri.)

But right, back to the film. There’s Philip Seymour Hoffman as the deliciously splenetic villain Owen Davian — his Cruise imitation while ”wearing” a Davian mask is an all-too-brief high point — and, oh yeah, impossible missions. Abrams’ claustrophobic style actually looks much better on TV; in the theater, it felt like, well, a really expensive episode of Alias. Even he calls himself out: ”I know I love close-ups,” he admits, ”and maybe use them too often.”

And while he lacks big-screen savvy — M:I-3 is his first film — Abrams sure can craft a gripping action sequence. Unfortunately, you’ll never know how. The DVD extras give us glimpses of the planning behind, say, a breakneck helicopter chase or the construction of a supercool mask-making device — but we never get a thorough blow-by-blow…except of Cruise’s prowess as a stuntman, a recurring theme throughout the two-disc set that would be less tiresome if it weren’t common knowledge that the guy does all his own stunts.

It’d be nice to have more of Abrams’ charming self-deprecation — on, for example, the insanity of making his movie debut with a mega-blockbuster: ”I mean, there are more people on the crew than I’d ever, certainly, you know, met in my life.” Instead, we get two fawning awards-show montages celebrating Cruise’s 25-year career. In fact, the guy who seems least interested in talking about Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise — and yet everything is about him. That’s a movie star.