Mission: Impossible 2

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Mission : Impossible 2/10

6

USA 2000

director – John Woo
script – Robert Towne
cinematographer – Jeffrey L Kimball
stars – Tom Cruise, Thandie Newton, Dougray Scott

123 minutes

Mission : Impossible, in 1996, featured an updated version of the old TV show’s theme by U2. M:I 2, which is nothing if not millennial, features an update of the update, this time by angry punk metallers, Limp Bizkit. This, for me, sums up everything that’s good and bad about the sequel. Yes, it’s an improvement, and, yes, it’s cooler and funnier and smarter and more in-your-face. But if you’re going to head in that direction, it’s irritating that you don’t go the whole way and really shake things up. Limp Bizkit are basically a watered-down, commercialised hybrid of metal and hardcore punk. And John Woo, for all his considerable flair and talent, goes for a compromise – he delivers a globally viable box-office blockbuster, but you can feel his frustration at never being allowed to stay in top gear for very long.

M:I 2 does have more flashes of greatness and genius than you’ll find in the entire history of the James Bond series this franchise is plainly so eager to supplant. Whereas the Broccoli dynasty carefully selects competent journeymen, desperate not to screw up their golden goose, Mission : Impossible delights in moments of extremity and real visual exhilaration. The most astonishing of these, in some ways, comes in the pre-credit sequence where we find our hero, Ethan Hunt (Cruise), on vacation, suspended on a grand-canyon style rock face without ropes or any other visible means of support. Making his way along using only his bare hands, Cruise is forced into a leap across a void – only two or three feet, but with a yawning drop beneath his feet. He makes it, somehow, and you feel a gasp run through the audience. It’s a brilliant, simple opening – and it sets up expectations that the rest of the film never quite manages to match.

The problems come when the film shifts from Woo’s preferred mode of visual pyrotechnics into a realm in which he’s much less comfortable – plot. This is the usual nonsense about a megalomaniac laptop criminal (Scott) planning global terrorism by means of an ebola-type virus. Cruise persuades jewel thief Nyah Hall (Newton), to resume her old romance with the bad guy, with a view to uncovering and halting his fiendish plans – and one must presume that the deafening echoes of Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious are more a case of respectful homage than plain bare-faced theft. The convolutions of the plot are too tiresome to recount here, and they serve only to provide Woo with the opportunity to indulge in his trademark set-pieces, most of which involve (a) characters sliding along the ground firing two guns at once in slow motion, (b) pigeons and doves flapping about in slow motion, or preferably (c), both the above at once. And, as this is Mission Impossible – and not, as an unbilled Anthony Hopkins drily observes, in the film’s funniest line, ‘Mission Difficult’, there’s a endless succession of characters pulling off their latex ‘faces’, finally skirting very close to self-parody.

There’s no faulting these set-pieces, but equally there’s no getting away from the fact that the ‘down time’ that separates them is more than usually leaden and lame-brained, not helped by Robert Towne’s heavy-handed script that makes a meal of the Britishness of Newton and Scott’s characters then gives them distinctively American dialogue to spout. The romance between Cruise and Newton’s characters never rises above the level of handy plot device, and by the end you realise that neither Cruise, Newton or Scott have been developed in terms of their individual characters or their relationships – the supporting cast, headed by a totally underused Ving Rhames, barely register at all. In particular, there’s an underlying idea that Scott and Cruise somehow represent two halves of something – brought together, literally, during a typically operatic motorbike duel – but this remains, tantalisingly, buried in the background. Fans of David Cronenberg would be forgiven, in addition, for musing on how the film would work from the virus’s point of view.

But to complain that this film is all style and very little substance would be to miss the point – just as it’s absurd to start questioning the plausibility of any one of the scenes. Rather, the giddy daftness becomes the movie’s strong suit, so that the final, endlessly protracted bout fisticuffs between Cruise and Scott becomes another instance of the director abandoning any vestige of ‘realism’ and instead showing off his remarkable mastery of film technique.

Which is fair enough. There’s an hour’s-worth of terrific stuff in this film, and an hour’s worth of join-the-dots old-fashioned movie bullshit. Let’s just hope that the enormous success of M:I 2 will shift the balance even further in the right direction next time. Full-bore Florida hardcore outfit Shai’Hulud for the theme tune would be a good start.

by Neil Young
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