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Mission: Impossible 2   B

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: John Woo
Writers: Robert Towne, Brannon Braga, Ronald D. Moore
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton, Ving Rhames, William R. Maypother, Anthony Hopkins.

Review by Rob Vaux

"Good morning, Mr. Woo. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make us forget that the first film in this series ever happened..."

The one good thing about Brian De Palma's inexplicably popular Mission: Impossible is that it was, well, inexplicably popular -- which gave the chance for a sequel to do things right. And there was plenty to get right. From the dull-as-dishwater action scenes to the baffling decision to make Jim Phelps the bad guy (the equivalent of making Indiana Jones a Nazi or James Bond a Russian), the first film stands as the tragic waste of a perfectly good theme song. Luckily, producer/star Tom Cruise knew just how to save his burgeoning franchise from repeating the error: get the best damn action director the world has ever seen.

So it fell to John Woo, the Hong Kong-bred mayhem master who uses violence the way Michelangelo used church ceilings, to bring the inevitable M:I-2 up to speed. With his stylized choreography and affection for slow motion, Woo has the ability to turn any two-bit spy thriller into a work of art. While he doesn't quite reach the level we might like, his efforts are more than enough to make M:I-2 worthwhile.

It takes time to get there though. After an enigmatic opening sequence, we move to some fairly straightforward espionage. Rogue Impossible Mission Force agent Sean Ambrose steals a lethal virus named Chimera as well as its antidote, Belleraphon. The understandably concerned IMF then contacts Super Bad-Ass™ Ethan Hunt (Cruise) -- currently hanging by his fingertips while on vacation in Utah -- to stop Ambrose and recover the virus. Hunt has orders to recruit Ambrose's former girlfriend Nyah Nordoff Hall (Thandie Newton) as a sort of Trojan horse. She'll make up with Ambrose, find out where the virus is, and alert them to its location. Of course it isn't as easy as all that, and the mission is complicated when Hunt finds himself falling for his lovely co-conspirator.

All of this fills up about the first hour or so, giving us some nice interplay between Cruise and Newton but comparatively little of the doves-and-shotguns carnage we all presumably came to see. While the two stars work well together and we're treated to some keen gadgets on both sides of the good guy/bad guy line, it goes on for a tad too long. Even the marvelous cinematography from Jeffrey Kimball can't stop things from wearing down. It's an action film, people. When will stuff start blowing up?

Woo makes up for it in the second half. Once Hunt learns where the virus is, we're treated to a stunning array of set pieces, ranging from an impenetrable Sidney skyscraper to a climactic motorcycle duel that would look right at home in Medieval Times. Woo's marvelous visual sense kicks into high gear, lavishing us with shot after shot of gorgeous brutality. Cruise deftly dodges the laws of physics while hiding from guards, avoiding countless bullets and putting the Harm on any faceless thug stupid enough to get within arm's reach. While a few clumsy clichés rear their ugly heads (Stupid Bad Guy syndrome is evident) it's not enough to mar the real beauty amid all the guns and body-blows. Woo's peerless talents are on full display as M:I-2 careens towards its climax.

It is Mission: Impossible as well. The first film never really caught the wheels-within-wheels duplicity of the original TV series. Here, the relatively simple plot is underlain with intricate webs of deception, as Hunt and Ambrose each try to outthink the other. Voice chips and 21st century masks blur the lines of identity and the question of who to trust looms ever larger in the characters' minds. Woo explored the same idea a little more thoroughly in Face/Off, but has the experience to handle it well here. In so doing, he shows a real understanding of M:I-2's source material and evokes a strong sense of Peter Graves & Co. in the ensuing action.

The cast is admirable, if not overwhelming. Cruise puts his star charisma to good use and Scott's relative discipline comes as a fresh surprise (especially after Nicholas Cage and John Travolta took turns gnawing the scenery in Face/Off). Ving Rhames once again makes the most of a limited role as Hunt's nerdy sidekick Luther, and Newton has a lot of chemistry with her much more famous leading man. Only Anthony Hopkins seems ill at ease, paying the rent as Hunt's IMF commander.

As with Woo's other films, however, the characters in M:I-2 are less real people than elements in the director's exquisite ballet. With the James Bond films growing more wearisome and no Tom Clancy thriller in sight, M:I-2's visual assets triumphantly lift its otherwise stock material to Grade-A levels. Despite a few shortcomings, John Woo has fulfilled the potential that his predecessors squandered and given us hope that this emerging franchise might actually be worth watching. If that isn't an impossible mission, I don't know what is.

Review published 05.26.2000.

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