Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Mission: Impossible 2

Grade : B- Year : 2000 Director : John Woo Running Time : 2hr 3min Genre : ,
Movie review score

I think “Mission: Impossible 2” is the most excited I’ve been for one of Tom Cruise’s films based on the classic spy series. A big part of that is because it was directed by John Woo, the Hong Kong action extraordinaire whose last theatrical release was one of my all-time favorite films, “Face/Off.” The idea of Cruise, one of the most adventurous action stars of the ’80s and ’90s, being directed by one of the most adventurous action filmmakers of all-time, was genuinely thrilling, and honestly, it should be. Then why is it the black sheep of the franchise? That’s what I will try to parcel out in this review.

I’ve always been hesitant to join the crowd in decrying “M:i-2” as a bad movie, and I’ll admit, that has something to do with my bias towards John Woo. With three films coming after it, however, I see more clearly why it doesn’t work in the context of the series, as a whole. I saw easily in 2000, and do so now, that this was very much a Tom Cruise vanity project- it was a production of the actor’s so that he could flex his muscles, and itch whatever bold whims he came up with. That is true of the series as a whole, but has always been true of “M:i-2,” in particular. Case in point, the first time we “officially” see Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in the film, he’s dangling from cliffs, doing free solo climbing in Utah. Cruise did the stunt himself, with only a harness, and it’s a reflection of the actor’s ego in doing these films. It’s also the first example of why Woo’s style is so important to this film; set to “Iko-Iko” by Zap Mama, the sequence sets the tone of what will transpire as Hunt is brought in when a rogue IMF agent steals a deadly virus, and tries to pawn it off to the highest bidder. If you’re surprised by how easily the plot of a “Mission: Impossible” film can be laid out after the convoluted nature of Brian De Palma’s first film, well, you’re putting more effort into it than Woo, Cruise, and screenwriter Robert Towne did. By Woo and Cruise’s own admission, many of the action sequences came first in planning this film, and Towne was brought in to fill in the story around them. It wasn’t the first action movie in that era to do this, to be sure (and it probably wasn’t the last), but I don’t know if any other owned up to it after the mixed reception this film received.

John Woo’s directorial career in America was brief- he only made six theatrical films in 10 years- and it’s painful to thing only a couple of those (“Face/Off” and the underrated “Windtalkers”) are worthy of consideration among his better films. The other four (“Hard Target,” “Broken Arrow,” “M:i-2” and “Paycheck”) were very much “director-for-hire” jobs for Woo, and it shows in every film, to large degrees. Nowhere is that more true than “M:i-2,” however. When Cruise brought Woo on, he wanted the full “John Woo experience,” meaning slow-motion action and shots of people staring at each other, walking in front of fire, Chow Yun Fat “hero shots,” and doves. Lots and lots of doves. I don’t know how you logically explain doves being in a bunker in Australia where a shady deal is going down, but dammit, Cruise wanted doves, and he got them from Woo. Unfortunately, while “Face/Off” played to what was great about Woo’s films at the time, “M:i-2” feels like someone trying to replicate Woo’s style without quite getting it right. That’s what makes the film so disappointing for this Woo fan, and it’s something I was acute to then and now.

Part of the problem with “Mission: Impossible 2” is that it’s not so much a spy movie in the vein of the show, or any of the other “M:i” movies, for that matter, but a generic action movie with a “superhero” Ethan Hunt front and center. The story is generic, but it’s “inspired” by quite a movie- Hitchcock’s “Notorious,” where Cary Grant asks Ingrid Bergman to reconnect with an old lover for the purposes of his spycraft. It’s easy to see why that appealed to Woo, a Hitchcock aficionado himself, and he plays into it when Thandie Newton’s Nyah, a thief, is recruited by Hunt to get back with Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), the former IMF agent who is turning to biological terrorism. Cruise and Newton have nice chemistry together, and aided by a superb score by Hans Zimmer (with vocals by Lisa Gerrard), they make us care about this couple in the same way we feel about your typical Bond girl, but it’s ultimately a superficial emotional connection at the center of a film that is all surface without much underneath.

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