Normally when we talk about a certain actor stealing a scene, it’s an instance when they’ve completely owned a particular portion of screentime and left the audience wishing they’d return. In the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission: Impossible III, however, the great man doesn’t just steal a particular scene. He steals the entire film as shady global black market dealer Owen Davian.
It’s not always fair to compare villainous performances across multiple films in a franchise. However, as in much of his work, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the exception. Like drawing blood from the proverbial stone, Hoffman extracts maximum value from perhaps the most paltry of all Mission: Impossible scripts. The villains who have succeeded Owen Davian in the franchise have been similarly stripped back, and without wishing to do a disservice to the actors involved, they have been somewhat two-dimensional – acting as temporary irritants to Ethan Hunt’s IMF agent. Conversely, Hoffman transforms a character who, on paper, may have seemed rather meagre into what is unquestionably the best villain of the franchise and arguably one of the most memorable in modern movie history – while at the same time creating space for Tom Cruise to act his little chops off. Here’s a perfect example:
Why is this role perfect for Hoffman? Well, part of the answer lies in the contrast between the two main characters. An assumption of many action films is that pitching a brave protagonist against a sinister foe of often superior physical prowess will elevate the tension, begging the question of “Ooh, who will win?!” This notion is not a fundamentally flawed one (Mission: Impossible II being a case in point) but it doesn’t always work – we’re looking at you, Batman V Superman. In Mission: Impossible III, Hunt and Davian could scarcely be more different. One of them is a bundle of manic, moral energy. The other is cold and calculating, wearily viewing Ethan Hunt’s exploits with an overwhelming sense of boredom.
Despite the fact that he is far from a physical match for Ethan Hunt, like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, Owen Davian is the dominant player in virtually every scene in which the two appear together. Even when he appears at his most vulnerable, he nonchalantly inverts the tables on Hunt and plants a seed of fear which the audience has every reason to take seriously. The scene in which Hunt interrogates Davian after the latter’s capture is a case in point.
This moment sets the film on a course which had hitherto not been explored in the franchise. Davian’s threat makes the dynamic between himself and Hunt deeply personal. From this moment on, Hunt is never in control of the situation; he’s on the back foot. The final sequence of the film sees Ethan at his most desperate. Although Davian is by no means insane, his complete (and yet oddly believable) lack of empathy for the situation in which Hunt finds himself feeds the feeling of deepest loathing that the audience has developed for the character.
Without Hoffman, this film would have been in trouble. JJ Abrams’ creative talents notwithstanding, Mission: Impossible III lives and dies on the strength of its villain. This is in marked contrast to Ethan Hunt’s subsequent outings, in which you almost get the impression that the films exist simply as a vehicle to exhibit Tom Cruise’s seemingly insatiable appetite for Evil Knievel-like antics.
Instead, the ‘plot’ of Mission: Impossible III is a narrative vacuum, which Hoffman takes up the mantle of filling. Ostensibly, Ethan Hunt’s mission is to steal a mysterious MacGuffin called the Rabbit’s Foot and deliver it to Davian in exchange for the safe return of his wife. It’s never really explained what the Rabbit’s Foot is, but who cares? Maybe we would if there was an insipid villain at the centre of proceedings, but luckily there isn’t.
Unlike the villains in the rest of the franchise, Davian is a foe that the audience grows to despise and fear in equal measure. He always seems to know more than he’s letting on, appearing to be one step ahead of Ethan Hunt, and positively reveling in tormenting him for no discernible reason other than that he finds it quite entertaining. Mission: Impossible III is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s film. Still not convinced? Take a look at the scene in which he plays Tom Cruise… playing Philip Seymour Hoffman.