Now a legitimate powerhouse, there was still one mountain left to climb: big-screen director. Abrams had retreated from film into TV to find respect, but he was coming back on top of it all.
Going into its third installment, the Mission: Impossible series was looking a bit creaky by the mid-2000s. Cruise's star had waned since the previous episode in 2000 (see: couch jumping), and what had originally been established as a biggest of big-budget tentpole series was now looking to scale back a bit. For the first two, Paramount Pictures had brought on giant directors at the top of their games (Brian DePalma and John Woo), but now, after the departure of Joe Carnahan from the project and the studio looking to cut its costs and exposure on what was no longer a sure thing, Cruise sought an up-and-coming young gun to try to inject some fresh life into the series. Thus, Abrams was able to make his directorial debut in a gigantic star vehicle — the sort of project that, if handled properly, instantly propels one into the top ranks of film directing. In the wake of Alias, Abrams had been offered other projects but held out for the one that would enable that big step. He found it with MI3.
Abrams turned to his brain trust, hiring Kurtzman and Orci to write the script and propelling them into major league screenwriting ranks while he was at it.
The resulting MI3, released in 2006, performed a bit lower at the box office than MI2, but that was hardly a surprise given Cruise's changing fortunes. More importantly, it did respectably and staved off what many feared might be an implosion in the public appetite for Cruise as a first-tier screen star. The film was received decently by critics. Abrams, who had turned in a solid performer on time and on budget, earned Paramount's respect and gratitude. His transition to the big screen was official.
It was the first time Abrams had put himself in the right position at the right time: stepping into a place with a troubled history where performing merely competently would make him seem a genius. It wouldn't be the last.