Mission: Impossible 2
review by KJ Doughton, 26 May 2000

Mission: Impossible 2 looks like a pained tug-of-war between one man’s art and a studio’s commodity.  The man is Hong Kong-cum-Hollywood superdirector John Woo, arguably the most gifted action-helmer alive. The studio, which reportedly slipped an editor into the cutting room for some last-minute surgery, is Paramount.  Throughout this schizophrenic action opera, the viewer is bored during long expository passages full of dreary, uncreative dialogue (penned, surprisingly, by legendary Chinatown scripter Robert Towne, who’s strictly on autopilot here). But wait!  Like Luke Skywalker zeroing in on the Death Star, Woo jolts us awake with some of the most creatively choreographed stunt work this side of a caffeinated George Miller (who set the standard with The Road Warrior), before Towne can lull us back into a coma.

Take, for instance, the completely ridiculous but lovingly shot bit where Top Cruise’s neo-Bond superagent, Ethan Hunt, bolts full-blast on his motorcycle towards nemesis Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott, the prettyboy Brit from Ever After). Both men, riding atop their respective powerbikes, collide head on, with the impact launching their bodies into the air like human cannon balls.  Air bound, the men grab each other and hit the ground while still trading punches.  Goofy?  You bet.  Dumb?  Uh-huh.  But with Woo using these set pieces like putty in his graceful hands, such sequences achieve a sleek beauty. We suspend the belief, sit back, and enjoy these elegant fireworks.  This is Disneyland for grownups.

    Unfortunately, Woo’s bag of slick visual tricks is limited to the film’s beginning and end, held at bay by the cookie-cutter script.  Mission: Impossible 2 opens with the beefcake Hunt climbing cliffs in Monument Valley, Utah.  It’s rather exhilarating to watch the actual Cruise – and not some stunt double – clinging onto the top of a multi-hundred-foot boulder, with sweeping camera angles emphasizing the precipitous drop.  Seemingly, the whole scene is accomplished without the use of ropes or nets, and it’s an awesome segue way into a far less daring mid-section.

“Every search for a hero requires a villain,” narrates a wary scientist as he shuffles nervously onto a plane with a suspicious black briefcase. “So,” he continues, “we created a monster.”  Soon, the scientist is robbed of his cargo by secret agent-gone-bad Ambrose, who then leaps to his escape via a Bond-style parachute jump. It’s soon revealed that the stolen briefcase contains a sinister virus, capable of spreading to plague proportions and killing millions. "After twenty hours of infection, “ explains one character, “nothing can save you.”  In a unique new-millenium twist, Mission: Impossible 2’s villains aren’t content to merely blackmail the government – Doctor Evil style – for a few billion dollars by threatening to unleash the killer germ. Instead, they want stock options with the corrupt biochemical company that has just produced an antidote for the virus!

Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt is sent to the scene by his “Q”-like mentor, played by an unbilled Anthony Hopkins, where the hero will use Ambrose’s former girlfriend, superthief Hyah Hall (an easy-on-the-eyes Thandie Newton, of Beloved fame), to track the villain and virus, before eventually disposing of both.  When Hunt ridicules the idea, convinced that it’s too challenging, his nameless superior shoots back with Hannibal Lecter-style sarcasm: “This is not Mission Difficult, Mr. Hunt.  It’s Mission Impossible.  This should be a walk in the park for you.”

Hunt and Hall meet in Seville, Spain, where she’s trying to snatch a top-security necklace: unfortunately, Hunt foils her efforts: he’s the hired security coordinator for the very building Hall is trying to rob!  Woo combines photogenic glimpses of Cruise and Newton – the two are a knockout pair – with the stomping feet of Spanish nightclub dancers and eerie firelight, conjuring forth a sensual mood.  You can tell that they’ll soon be in the sack together, but there’s the usual set of “hip” dialogue exchanged during a microscopically short courtship.  “Why should I help you?” she asks, reluctant to help Hunt in his mission. “Let my conscience be my guide, right?  I don’t have a conscience – I’m a bloody thief!”

In a perverse coupling of rubber-burning car chases and heavy petting  (“fuel-injection foreplay,” anyone?), Cruise wins her over by nearly running Hall’s sports car off of a cliff.  Dangling off the precipice and waiting for this Rambo-hybrid Prince Charming to lift her to safety, Newton offers a “come hither” look that’s a hilarious sendoff of the whole damsel in distress image.  Alongside the kinky, crash ‘n shag rituals featured in David Cronenberg’s Crash, human mating behavior has never been staged in such a bizarre, goofy fashion.

With the help of computer genius Luther Stikell (Ving Rhames, who could use a gig that didn’t stereotype him as the techno-expert sidekick), Hunt spends the next portion of Mission Impossible 2 spying on Hall as she reunites with the evil Ambrose. He’s disgusted to see this beauty in the company of such a loathsome suitor.  Indeed, just to prove his authority to a hired hand, Ambrose uses a cigar cutter to slice off the horrified henchman’s fingertip.  “We just rolled up a snowball and tossed it into hell,” comments the lovestruck Hunt of his shapely new squeeze as she mingles with his nemesis.

Eventually, Hunt tracks down the virus in Sydney, Australia, where it’s germinating in a high-rise laboratory.  To enter the security-heavy skyscraper, he’s launched from a helicopter like a futuristic spider, connected to a cable that regulates his speed of descent.  Navigating through a series of air ducts that open and close at select moments, the movie brings to mind the original film’s brilliant centerpiece scene, where Hunt dangles from wires to steal a high-security computer disc.  A droplet of forehead sweat – poised to fall and trigger the alarm – generated Hitchcock-level suspense. Mission: Impossible 2 doesn’t have anything to match that classic moment (like most films spawned from the film’s director, Brian DePalma, the first Mission: Impossible was a rather routine entertainment anchored by one redemptive moment of pure genius), but it’s more kinetic and fun as its rousing finale takes over.

With Hunt in possession of the final batch of virus, the final forty minutes of Mission Impossible 2 surrender all plausibility, and act as a showcase for Woo’s inventive action staging. It’s basically just a series of chases – on motorcycle, helicopter, and foot – with Matrix-style slo-mo intercut with brain-rattling explosions. And to those that might write MI2’s stylistics off as a Matrix ripoff, let it be known that Woo has been applying these editing techniques to films like A Better Tomorrow, Hard-Boiled, and The Killer before the Warchowski Brothers ever conceived of putting Keanu Reeves in a black trenchcoat. While the flying doves and two-handed pistol brandishing are fun to watch, there’s also a sense that Woo is repeating himself. The final mano-a-mano fistfight between Hunt and Ambrose seems lifted from Face-Off , while the motorcycle chase echoes a similar moment from Hard-Boiled. 

Ultimately, though, those earlier films carried more weight than Mission: Impossible 2. Woo’s best films couple the sensational action scenes with an operatic, emotional weight built of strong characterizations and high-stakes situations.  Face-Off , which wrung pathos from the concept of a man’s identity being robbed by his son’s murderer, had characters to match the fireworks.  In contrast, Hunt and Hall don’t have time to establish much of a relationship: they’re newbie lovers with Baywatch looks but no history. Compared to the completely believable chemistry between John Travolta and Joan Allen, as a husband and wife dealing with grief and distrust in Face-Off, these two lovebirds are lightweights.  And set alongside Nicholas Cage’s diabolical Castor Troy, Dougray Scott’s villain is more Jude Law than Goldfinger.  There’s really nothing scary about this guy, even when he’s hacking off fingers.

Mission: Impossible 2 will almost certainly bring out the testosterone crowd long into the summer, but it’s ultimately a second-string Woo outing, with A-list stunts tacked onto a B-movie storyline.  Like Woo’s similarly lopsided near-misses, Hard Target and Broken Arrow, this Cruise-produced sequel is a good bet for DVD purchase, where you can skip past the mundane filler and get right to the action. Meanwhile, let’s hope that this gifted Hong Kong giant is finally given a chance to fulfill his dream of directing a musical. He’s mastered the guns, doves, and explosives: let’s put them into storage while he stakes out some new ground.

Directed by:
John Woo


Written by:
Robert Towne

Based on a 
Story by:

Ronald D. Moore
Brannon Braga







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