This article appeared in Issue 28 of "Asian Cult Cinema"
A few years ago, during the hype leading up to the theatrical release of "Goldeneye", a television interview was conducted with several prolific directors on how they would direct a James Bond film. One of the directors interviewed happened to be John Woo, who had yet to ignite the North American box office with his own brand of action film. When asked what his version of James Bond would be, Woo paused, smiled, and then jokingly remarked that in the very least, his 007 would carry two guns, not unlike the double-fisted heroes of his genre-defining Hong Kong films, such as "The Killer".
Well, Mr. Woo still has yet to direct an installment of the long-running spy movie franchise, but his latest project, "Mission: Impossible 2" comes pretty close-- a big budget tent-pole production featuring a larger than life hero (not to mention production values). With the drawing power of returning star Tom Cruise and the cinematic stylings of John Woo, how could it go wrong? Unfortunately, this long-awaited and long-delayed $150 million sequel to the 1996 blockbuster is a disappointing effort, spared only by the director's hallmark eye for staging action sequences. Truth be told, if it were any other director, "Mission: Impossible 2" would probably end up in the trash heap alongside "Battlefield Earth" and "Mission to Mars".
The film starts off with IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) in the midst of a vacation, perilously scaling a sheer rock face somewhere in the Rockies. Unlike the clean-cut protagonist of the first film, the latest incarnation of Ethan is more on the shaggy side, continuing the long-haired look that Cruise sported in "Magnolia". Despite his remote location, the head of IMF (Anthony Hopkins of "Meet Joe Black") manages to track him down and give him a new assignment. Apparently, an ex-IMF agent named Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott of "Ever After") has stolen samples of a lethal virus named Chimera, as well as its antidote, after killing the scientist who created it (Rade Serbedzija, who starred alongside Cruise in "Eyes Wide Shut"). With Ambrose and the deadly Chimera virus running around loose somewhere in Australia, Ethan cuts his vacation short.
To successfully complete his mission, Ethan must recruit Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton of "Beloved"), a comely jewel thief who also happens to be Ambrose's ex-girlfriend. Unfortunately, like any James Bond-type hero would do in such a situation, Ethan falls madly in love with Nyah, as she does for him, which makes Nyah's covert 'reunion' with Ambrose that much more complex. Fortunately, Ethan brings in two other agents to assist him, computer genius Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, reprising his role from the first film) and an obligatory Aussie (John Polson). However, Ambrose, being an ex-agent himself, is well aware of Ethan's standard operating procedures, which he uses to the fullest advantage...
The good news is that "Mission: Impossible 2" is vintage John Woo, with all the 'beautiful violence' one would expect from the veteran action director. Everyone's favorite IMF agent has certainly learned a few new moves since 1996, as Ethan gracefully executes some martial arts moves on the bad guys (by the way of "The Matrix") and finds some innovative ways to fire a gun. Not surprisingly, the action sequences are a pleasure to watch in all their slo-mo glory, from a frenzied shoot-out in a high-tech lab to the film's climactic final chase in which Ethan engages in some slick-but-physically-impossible gun battles while riding a high-speed motorcycle. Woo-purists will also note many of the director's trademark touches during the film's two-hour-plus running time, including the use of Christian symbolism, the characters' use of mirrors, numerous slow-motion shots of birds taking flight, and the use of facial close-ups to convey subtle changes in facial expressions.
Unfortunately, in order to get to the film's blood, bullet, and octane-soaked moments, you have to sit through the film's first hour, which is poorly paced and incredibly dull. Not much of consequence occurs during the first half, which is all setup for the action later on. To make matters worse, the film is devoid of any truly interesting characters (or emotion for that matter), leaving most of the on-screen action as purely functional, from Ethan getting his assignment, to his contrived romance with Nyah, and to Ambrose illustrating how truly evil he is. Even the 'action' in this part of the film is flat, with only a mildly-interesting mid-air heist and a car chase blatantly ripped-off from "Goldeneye" to keep the audience awake. Furthermore, Woo's direction actually exacerbates the situation in this part of the film, since his slo-mo indulgences are far more glaring when there is actually nothing happening on the screen or in the story.
And despite the higher action quotient in the film's latter-half, the ability to take the film seriously deteriorates as the story's ridiculous plot mechanics take over. When the first film was originally released, a number of critics complained how convoluted the plot was, making it difficult to decipher. Unfortunately, with "Mission: Impossible 2", it seems plot complexity has gone to the other extreme.
Granted, the plot is much more comprehensible now (villain steals virus, good guy must get it back before the world is destroyed), but a number of the story's elements make absolutely no sense. For example, the Chimera virus is supposed to be extremely deadly (it kills in 27 hours), yet it seems that people can sit next to an infected person for hours without any ill effects-- even the hantavirus could do more damage in terms of causing an epidemic (which it did a few years ago in the American mid-west). As mentioned earlier, one of the scenes involves a shoot-out in a medical lab, and in the course of the gun battle, the lab gets blown to bits. Interestingly enough, none of the characters involved show any ill effects, even though the carnage probably inadvertently aerosolized whatever viruses or bacteria were being kept in the lab. Finally, it seems that there is no good reason for the film's big climactic chase-- when you watch the film, ask yourself if Ambrose really needs to risk his entire operation to go chasing after Ethan, or would he be better off investing his money in tech stocks?
And in case there is anyone in the audience who fails to catch on to the subtleties of the facial expressions of the characters, the dumbed-down script mercifully has the characters vocalize what may have been missed, such that there is no confusion. One terrific example of this is Ambrose's discovery that he has been 'had'-- though Woo catches the subtle twitch of his realization in a close-up shot, the following scene has Ambrose loudly declaring this realization. Yes, with illogical and unnecessary nonsense like this, it appears that the original film actually had a more intelligent plot.
Performance-wise, there's not much to comment on either. Cruise certainly can handle the physical demands of the new and improved Ethan Hunt, as he did many of his own stunts, including the rock-climbing sequence in the film's opening. However, as Ambrose remarks at one point, when it comes to acting, Cruise spends most of his time 'grinning like an idiot'. The chemistry he has with Newton is also unconvincing, which is critical since Ethan's motivation hinges on having the audience believe that Ethan and Nyah share some kind of an uncommon bond and that he will go to the ends of the Earth to save her. Rhames, despite his involvement in the first film, is given little to do this time around, other than to stare at computer screens and relay information to Ethan. Similarly, Hopkins plays an uninteresting character that any actor could have played. And as the film's villain, Scott is certainly menacing enough, but his poorly-written character never breaks beyond the confines of generic bad-guy who wouldn't flinch at killing his own men.
It's been four years since that last installment of the "Mission: Impossible" franchise, and three years since John Woo set the box office on fire with "Face/Off", and audiences have been eagerly awaiting for both a sure-bet blockbuster and the next action masterpiece from the cult film director. Unfortunately, it seems that "Mission: Impossible 2" fails to deliver on the first and barely makes it for the second. Though it has a high action quotient, "Mission: Impossible 2" gets bogged down by a weak story and uninteresting characters, making for a disappointing experience. Mind you, this is not Woo's worst film ("Once a Thief" and "Blackjack" tie for this honor), and as he proved with his North American debut "Hard Target", even when he is only delivering 60%, he is still 100% better than any other director out there.