Mission: Impossible II (2000)

2000, Paramount. Directed by John Woo. Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton, Ving Rhames.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?D+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? -2
Age
Appropriateness
?Adults*

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG-13 USCCB ?A-III

Content advisory: Frequent firefights and stylized martial-arts battles; amoral depiction of casual sex and calculated seduction; some language.

By Steven D. Greydanus

There is no doubt that John Woo knows how to photograph motion and speed. When his characters are in motion, as they are throughout much of the second half of Mission: Impossible 2, either in fast cars, motorcycles, helicopters, and so forth, or else pirouetting in the air around one another in heavily stylized, balletic martial-arts sequences, this sequel is eminently watchable.

Unfortunately, the first half of the film finds the characters very often engaged in more mundane behavior — standing around, talking, looking thoughtful, staring at computer screens, and so on. This in itself isn’t a problem; a film can involve a great deal of sitting around and talking and still be a riveting film (think of Twelve Angry Men or Rear Window). The problem is that John Woo seems to have no idea how to do this — how to make such non-kinetic activities interesting. Even worse, he apparently thinks his take is very interesting indeed, for these scenes linger on and on. The actors move slowly, almost languorously, striking contemplative poses while Woo burns footage. The composition is nice, and as static images in a photo gallery they might work; but this is supposed to be a motion picture. Although the comparison is practically unthinkable, I can’t help thinking that M:I-2 contains some of the most deliberate pacing I’ve seen outside of a Stanley Kubrick film. It goes without saying that Kubrick’s films have a weight that accords with this stately pacing, while M:I-2 is as lightweight as most films with titles that get abbreviated into three-character acronyms, and needed a lighter touch.

There are other problems. By now the comparisons between this new take on Mission Impossible and the James Bond franchise are well known: superspy Ethan Hunt works for an "M"-like anonymous superior (here played by Anthony Hopkins), drives fast cars, hops from one exotic locale to another, relies on high-tech gagetry, performs outrageous stunts, breaks into impregnable fortresses, and in particular sleeps with beautiful women he has only just met.

On this last point, it may be worth noting that there is at least this much to be said for the Bond films. Christian culture has always had a place for bawdy, for Chaucer’s outrageous fabliaux, for a lighthearted caricature of sexuality that is appropriately regarded not with a leer but with a wink. Bond’s notorious womanizing could hardly fail to repel and digust if taken seriously; but in fact there is a case to be made that such surreal and over-the-top goings-on, from the preposterously suggestive names of the Bond girls themselves to Bond’s own outrageously straight-faced double-entendres, are not to be taken as anything other than farce. Just as the absurdly unrealistic stuntwork is entertaining but hardly suspenseful since it is so obviously exaggerated and there is never any suspension of disbelief, so the silly sexuality is amusing but hardly erotic because it is so obviously campy and kitchy that it cannot be regarded seriously. It is worth noting that the Bond films aren’t especially sexy; the women are beautiful, but there is no nudity, and the camera always cuts demurely away from the bedroom scenes.

Now M:I-2 opens on such a note, with a playful exchange between Ethan Hunt and a beautiful thief named Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton) that takes place in a bathtub (they are fully clothed and there is no water). A bit later, however, there is a cat-and-mouse car chase between the two of them on a mountain road in which Hunt’s Bond-like cool breaks as he displays genuine anxiety and concern for the safety of the girl as well as other drivers. Later, when Hunt and Hall end up in bed, he looks at her and says fervently, "God, you’re beautiful." There is no wink, no farce, and these displays of real emotion compel us to take these events at face value, for the dangerous car chases and casual fornication that they are.

More dismal still, from a moral point of view, is the film’s treatment of a twist swiped directly from Hitchcock’s Notorious, when Hunt discovers the real reason he was ordered to make contact with and recruit Hall: not for her breaking-and-entering skills, as he at first thought, but for her past relationship with the villain (a renegade Impossible Missions Force agent named Sean Ambrose, played by Dougray Scott). Then, like Cary Grant sending his own love Ingrid Bergman to seduce her old lover Claude Rains for utilitarian reasons, Hunt must ask Hall to return to Ambrose in order to get information from him.

The great difference is that in Hitchcock’s film the whole point of this plot device was the conflict between the hero’s coldhearted espionage ethic and his intractably traditional sensibility that nice girls don’t do this sort of thing, which paradoxically causes him to lose respect for her despite the fact that she has done it for love of him. In M:I-2, while Hunt doesn’t relish the idea of the girl he has just bedded going back to sleep with Ambrose, neither he nor the film has the moral fiber to generate any real moral conflict from this uncomfortable situation. M:I-2 has borrowed the bare events from Notorious, but none of the meaning or interest; the same things happen, but nothing happens as a result; nothing comes of it; it goes nowhere and does nothing. It’s as if someone were to make a film that had a young boy with a sled named Rosebud, but the boy didn’t care about the sled and in any case went on to lead a blandly happy life devoid of enigma.

At this point the film becomes disastrously bogged down in an interminable second act that is joyless and inert and from which it doesn’t begin to recover for over an hour. Even when Ethan Hunt breaks into a building to destroy a virus capable of annihilating mankind (or of making billionaires of the few who control the antidote), Woo is maddeningly languid. The setup here has villain Sean Ambrose — who knows Hunt from his tenure with the Impossible Missions Force — accurately predicting where and how Hunt will strike, and mobilizing to intercept him. This is a nice touch; we like the villain to be competent and clever, since it makes for more exciting action and heightens the hero’s own stature.

But then the villains delay their arrival on the scene until after Hunt has destroyed all but the final sample of the virus, and arrive only just in time to prevent him from destroying the last one. Worse still, they would have been altogether too late if only Hunt hadn’t wasted so much time sleepwalking through the building at a ponderous rate and dawdling over the last sample, thoughtfully contemplating earlier events; had he walked at even a normal pace or moved with ordinary working efficiency, he would have completed his mission.

So, instead of a taut and clever sequence that makes both the hero and his adversary seem clever and competent (à la The Fugitive), we get a frustrating episode in which the villains are so incompetent that they almost fail to stop the hero, and succeed only because of the hero’s own incompetence. This is not the fault of the screenplay, which I hardly imagine contains any such line as "HUNT proceeds to walk through the building at a snail’s pace while AMBROSE takes his time intercepting him." The fault for this scene is squarely on the director’s shoulders.

By the time Woo finally does pick up the pace again, it’s much too late to begin caring about plot or characters; though one may still, if one has the taste for this sort of thing, enjoy the action sequences for their kinetic energy and style. Here, at least, Woo delivers what he is famous for, stylized fight scenes in which bodies spin gracefully in the air and deliver slow-motion kicks before dropping and rolling on the ground, motorcycles dive and leap and roll like living things, and thousands and thousands of bullets lend staccato punctuation to dramatic standoffs. But all this is too little, too late.

This second Mission: Impossible film has almost as little to do with the 1996 blockbuster original as the latter had with the classic TV series whose name it happened to share. Both films are uneven but stylish entertainments, products of uneven but stylish directors (the first film was by Brian DePalma); but that’s where the similarities end.

DePalma’s film was essentially an action-laden intrigue with a twist at the center, like all of DePalma’s Hitchcock-influenced oeuvre. Woo’s M:I-2 is a thrill machine with fast cars, beautiful women, martial arts, and lots of gunfire. Mission: Impossible was famously labyrinthine, at least in its circuitous storytelling technique if not necessarily in the actual events of the plot. Woo’s M:I-2 eschews intrigue and complication for a directness and simplicity that offer no surprises at all, beyond the recurring use of ultrarealistic latex masks that allow the actors to appear to be the other actors’ characters impersonating their own characters.

DePalma, who has a rather choppy, episodic sense of story, crafted individual scenes that hung together only loosely but which individually possessed great drama and tension, such as the memorable CIA break-in episode, with Tom Cruise hanging suspended over a weight-sensitive floor. Woo creates visual sequences rather than "episodes" or "scenes" as such, in which what matters is flowing motion or contempative stillness rather than drama or tension or even plot.

For what it’s worth, I rather enjoyed the first Mission: Impossible for what it was, a goofy whodunit with some spectacularly absurd stunt sequences. M:I-2, while not devoid of thrills, doesn’t meet the same standard.

Tags: Mission: Impossible, Spy vs. Spy, Action, Thriller

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