We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Quick, which do you care about more: Shelley Winters or intense action? That’s likely to be the deciding factor in how you respond to Poseidon, Wolfgang Petersen’s redo of 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure. In the latter, Winters plays a rotund old woman who’s sure she won’t survive the wreckage of the titular ship and thus makes frequent ready-to-die remarks to her devoted husband. You ache for both of them. You pity the never-married, middle-aged man, played meekly by Red Buttons, who’s given up on finding a companion. You admire the God-questioning preacher, a tough-as-nails Gene Hackman, for his gumption in the face of a nonsensical universe. And the obnoxious cop played by Ernest Borgnine? You care for him, too—or you at least want to wax the hell out of those freaky eyebrows.

In Poseidon, you get Josh Lucas and Emmy Rossum and Freddy Rodriguez—the first indication that the disaster movie has changed profoundly over the past 30 years or so. It’s not very long before theirs and other equally terribly acted characters get tossed about like so many Hollywood remakes. That’s Indication No. 2: These days, peril doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with empathy. You thought it was hard relating to a Tinseltown A-lister as she swam for her life and her dress floated sadly up to her neckline? Fine. Relate to this special effect, then. Or this camera angle. Or that carefully staged demise. The story’s about the mechanics of storytelling.

Screenwriter Mark Protosevich didn’t update a whole lot from Adventure, which was based on Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel. It’s New Year’s Eve, and the ship’s passengers are celebrating in their finery, sipping champagne and dancing to the saucy stylings of Gloria (the Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie) and her band somewhere in the North Atlantic. Not long after midnight, one of the crew—with cartoonishly giant binoculars and a “No! Nooooo!”—spots trouble: a jaw-dropping “rogue wave” that crashes through the craft’s windows and flips the thing bottom-up. Some of those who survived the immediate impact decide to stay on the floor, which of course is really the ceiling. Another small group decides to struggle toward air and possible rescue: professional gambler and self-appointed leader Dylan (Lucas); former firefighter/New York mayor Robert, his daughter, Jennifer, and Jennifer’s fiancé, Christian (Kurt Russell, Rossum, and Mike Vogel); Maggie and her young son, Conor (Jacinda Barrett and Jimmy Bennett); kitchen employee Valentin (Rodriguez); recently dumped and suicidal gay man Richard (Richard Dreyfuss); and who-the-hell-knows-who-they-are Elena (Mia Maestro) and Lucky Larry (Kevin Dillon).

The skimp on characterization allowed Petersen, king of waterly disasters and claustrophobic tension (The Perfect Storm, Das Boot), to stretch out the mayhem while trimming the original’s 117 minutes to a swift-moving 99. The director lingers on the wave’s initial, fiery wallop, showing victims thrust into the ocean and the gruesome corpses that remain inside the boat. The ship’s slow inversion is portrayed from the outside, too, amping up the dark-water horror and a sense of the ocean’s power. The effects are brutal; coupled with a few cracks toward Robert that allude to Rudy Giuliani, they seem distinctly post-9/11.

For some time, the group’s first conflict-filled attempts to find safety are dull and eye-rolling, thanks not only to the fact that we couldn’t care less about these people but also to Protosevich’s stiff dialogue, including lines such as “That’s a pressure valve. It’ll only open under tremendous pressure!” But then Petersen pulls out his ace in the hole: running his characters ragged in impossibly tight spaces as they dodge their unrelenting, gushing pursuer as well as fireballs worthy of an explosion-happy, on-the-ground action flick. At one point, the entire screen goes orange and red. As the survivors thin, the deaths become even less pretty. Ever really see what happens to a person when he begins to drown?

What was that about empathy? Oh, right. Would you believe that’s where those B-status pretties actually come in handy? To watch them exit the picture virtually anonymous, as little more than props with a survival instinct, is to feel their anguish almost elementally. They remain strangers—to us and to each other—no matter how many times Petersen’s camera gets up close and personal. Does that constitute depth? Not exactly. But for those who can still imagine Winters in her altogether, it’s probably close enough.

Though action is obviously also the raison d’être of Mission: Impossible III, it’s a film in which it’s much more important that the acting be solid. And it is: Philip Seymour Hoffman recalls neither a tubby loser nor a lisping effete. Keri Russell, forever Felicity no more, is a believable secret agent. Oh, and Tom Cruise (maybe you’ve heard of him) for not one minute reminds you of his recent Kool-Aid-drinking lunacy. Now there’s a mission that’s…never mind.

Alias and Lost creator J.J. Abrams directed and co-wrote (along with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, collaborators on both series) this third franchise installment. Taking the reins from II’s action ace, John Woo, Abrams gets off to a fine start, with a scene that’s attention-grabbing—first line: “We put an explosive charge in your head”—and tense. Impossible Missions Force Agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his fiancée, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), are tied to chairs, at the mercy of international bad guy Owen Davian (Hoffman). Hunt pleas. Julia whimpers. Davian barks. And Abrams’ camera shakes like hell, regardless of whether he’s swooping between two characters or training a shot on just one. Even music-video-turned-movie-directors have steadier hands.

It’s a style Abrams will use again —say, inside a helicopter—but otherwise, the movie’s as brisk and artiness-free as a summer blockbuster should be. Gadgets such as mini–ultrasound machines and the aforementioned brain bomb are used as Hunt and his team—computer whiz Luther Strickell (the returning Ving Rhames), transportation expert Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and background operative Zhen (Maggie Q)—are called upon to find a bazillion-dollar “rabbit’s foot,” an object whose aim is specifically unknown but generally evil. Hunt globe-trots to such places as the Vatican and Shanghai. And though his superheroing in each location is quite challenging, the bigger problem Hunt faces is persuading his girlfriend to stick around while never telling her what he really does for a living.

True, that particular plotline leads to some Sith-quality dialogue, with Julia cooing, “Tell me that it’s real!”—“it” being their relationship—and Hunt repeatedly asking her to “Just trust me.” But the writing gets more believable outside of the love story—even terms such as “vascular ID” are casually bandied about. There’s some humor, too, mostly in the form of Shaun of the Dead’s Simon Pegg, who has a bit part as a fellow IMFer who guides Hunt via GPS, all the while nattering anxiously about how they’re both going to end up in jail.

But what everyone came for is to be dazzled—to see how inventive Abrams & Co. can get without blowing it. In that regard, M:I:III satisfies. At one point, Hunt goes Spider-Man, climbing walls and swinging between not-so-close skyscrapers on his chase for the mysterious foot. At another, the team makes the doppelgänger masks used in the previous movie, which involves photos and a kind of high-tech, 3-D pantograph.

Incredibly, Cruise doesn’t look as if he’s aged since his first appearance as Hunt a decade ago, and he’s just as believable as a go-to superspy. But the brilliant move here was casting Hoffman as the silky villain. One moment, he’s smoothly pronouncing that killing so-and-so was “fun”; the next, his voice is stranglingly tight as he’s trapped in a corner and doling out the threats. Hoffman’s greatest vocal performance, however, is when his Davian has Hunt in that chair and yells a perfectly bloodcurdling “Do you think I’m playing?!” No, sir—it’s clear that you and all the M:I:III contributors have taken their jobs quite seriously, indeed.CP