Mission: Impossible II (2000)

D: John Woo
S: Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott

Stylish but dumb sequel to the 1996 popcorn-muncher Mission: Impossible (based on the 1960s TV series), which now seems like a masterpiece of genre filmmaking by comparison. Without question the weakest of John Woo's American films to date (Hard Target, Broken Arrow, Face/Off), this is noisy, tedious, and uncharacteristically devoid of the kind of kitschy emotional resonance which makes Woo what he is.

The plot is considerably simpler than last time, which adds insult to injury. It is practically condescending in its fantastical vapidness, and plays the Hollywood screenwriter's cliché handbook to the letter (simple characters with no contradictions, repeat all major plot points at least three times...). Despite expensive and elaborate set pieces, it mostly seems to involve blowing things up as Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) goes in pursuit of a lethal virus and anti-virus in the hands of a rogue MIF agent played by Dougray Scott (Regeneration). It really doesn't matter, because unlike in the first film, where sorting out the intricacies of the bluff and double-bluff of director Brian De Palma's elastic reality was part of the fun, the story here (credited to Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore with a sole screenwriting credit for Robert Towne) is strictly routine, a premise upon which multiple incidents are heaped to little real avail. The whole point of this franchise used to be that the writers had to come up with convoluted plots which only ingenious teamwork, hi-tech gadgetry, and lots of make-up could resolve. Ingenuity is not really in question here, not even from returning cyber-ops expert Ving Rhames, merely lots of (literal) face pulling and things exploding (mostly in slow motion) as our heroes work their way through the baddies to get to the end. There is also an uncomfortable resemblance between the film and the James Bond vehicle GoldenEye, not least of all the car chase/flirtation scene near the beginning and the premise of the rogue agent (Scott even physically resembles Sean Bean!) Under the surface...well, there's nothing really, just some vaguely excessive masculine posturing and some cheerfully meaningless misogyny, making it seem more like one of Kathryn Bigelow's parodies than a film by John Woo.

Oh sure, it is stylish. There are some very nice scenes at the beginning involving Flamenco dancers, twirling skirts, cross cutting, and stamping feet. The climax is packed with action, and there are one or two trademark Woo elements scattered throughout (although the 360 degree camera movements become irritating after a while). Even at his worst in the past few years (Broken Arrow), Woo could still mount an action scene. He has also proved able to find some kernel of broad fun to mix with more serious thematic material, be it the icons of the American action hero (Hard Target - using a Dutch actor), cross-casting (John Travolta in Broken Arrow and Face/Off), and, as ever, sheer operatic excess and balletic violence. But it is clear now that Woo needs that emotional core before the excess pays off. The characters in Mission: Impossible II are totally synthetic (like the Australian setting, which makes it seem like a tourist documentary), and a contrived romantic sub-plot involving Thandie Newton fails to even sustain the illusion of deeper content. Corny as it has often seemed, Woo's apparently genuine belief in the communicative power of his films as moral lessons has always been important. Without it, there is literally nothing left but style, and the action scenes become merely so much pyrotechnical noise.

You would think from the sound of it that the film is really just a lot of mindless fun which ordinary viewers will get a kick from in spite of critical skepticism (Independence Day, The Mummy). Actually, I doubt it. Even the most undemanding viewer will sense they're being treated like children here, and not in a good way. Perhaps the most telling element of the film is the incredibly brief appearance by Anthony Hopkins, who seems to have mailed in his performance and collected his check before running like a bandit. Irish actor Brendan Gleeson (The General) is wasted in an unimportant supporting role (actually most of the supporting roles are unimportant come to think of it), and Cruise, meanwhile, hogs the screen all the way through in what seems more like a desperate attempt to make sure the audience sees him after what must have seemed a disappearance from the popular screen (Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia). Yes, it is impressive that he did most of his own stunts, including the rock climbing. Yes, he is a movie star through and through. But he is ultimately as ill-used here as he was by Stanley Kubrick. The latter stripped the actor of his character to make a point: this film makes a virtue of the character's lack of depth to advertise the actor's star qualities. The gambit doesn't pay off. It will make tons of money (hmmm. Maybe that means it will pay off...), but Mission: Impossible II is not half the movie Gladiator is, and it is not nearly as entertaining as one might have hoped it would be given its credits.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.