Mission: Impossible II (2000) – 6/10 espionage action movie review

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Cast / crew
Ethan Hunt: Tom Cruise
Dougray Scott: Sean Ambrose
Thandie Newton: Nyah [Nordorf-]Hall
Richard Roxburgh: Hugh Stamp
John Polson: Billy Baird
Brendan Gleeson: McCloy
Radé Sherbedgia: Dr. Nekhorvich
Ving Rhames: Luther Strickell
Writer (Original Series’ Creator): Bruce Geller
Story Writer: Ronald D. Moore
Story Writer: Brannon Braga
Screenplay Writer: Robert Towne
Producer: Tom Cruise
Producer: Paula Wagner
Director: John Woo

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

When a large passenger jet goes down in Rocky mountains, it is just an elaborate cover-up for the theft of an item known only as “Chimera”. Ethan Hunt’s mission – should he decide to accept it, of course – is to identify and retrieve “Chimera”. His opponent, however, is an ex-member of the IMF special forces team, Sean Ambrose, and knows every trick in the book. IMF hopes that the recruitment of civilian thief and ex-Ambrose lover Nyah Nordoff-Hall will tip the balance in their favour.

6/10

The much-anticipated sequel to Brian De Palma’s 1996 action movie has dumped its individuality and decided, instead, to merely be a direct but weak facsimile of two other genres: the John Woo action ballet and the Bond movie. This isn’t a very good movie thanks to a one-hour lull and Dougray Scott but it does have a number of great action moments and Cruise looks like he’s having fun.

This movie contains mild swear words, bad language, Sexuality, Strong melee violence, gun violence, very unpleasant scenes

Classified 15 by BBFC. Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over.

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Sadly, this episode has all the shortcomings of both John Woo action and James Bond genres and virtually none of the strengths and, in the end, comes across as an action-lite, seriously below par Bond movie at double the budget and half the entertainment. The blame for this must surely lie at the hands of producer / star Tom Cruise, writer Robert Towne (a man responsible for what is rated one of the greatest original screenplays of all time, [Chinatown]) and, most of all, director John Woo.

TOM CRUISE – PRODUCER / STAR

As producer of the movie, Cruise could and should have kept tighter grip on the spiralling budget (reported as anything between $150 and $180 million). What has ended up on-screen is a significant lack of bang for your buck, a movie that consistently builds expectations and, too often, does not deliver the required payoff. This is most obvious in the film’s opening sequence where a spectacular plane crash into a mountain is built up to and then never delivered. The movie returns to the site for some seriously unconvincing aircraft wreckage. This is, thankfully, the worst occurrence of this build-up with no punchline but there is only one scene, the motorcycle chase, that fully delivers the promised follow-through.

As star, however, things are different. Tom Cruise is in good form here doing, reportedly, 95% of his own stunts including some spectacular mountain climbing stuff at a couple of points during the movie and looking rather cool through all the deliriously marvellous slo-mo gunplay. While he doesn’t bother to do any acting (he clearly saw this as a kind of break after the emotional exertions of [Eyes Wide Shut] and [Magnolia]), he remains bizarrely charismatic as IMF agent Ethan Hunt and, on numerous occasions, manages to bring more to his role than the words he is asked to speak.

ROBERT TOWNE – SCREENWRITER

Writer Robert Towne has fashioned a good enough storyline for this genre of action movie but has populated it with lack-lustre lines, no wit whatsoever and very obviously second-hand action sequences (with the exception of one, the motorcycle chase). His other main fault is the overuse of the brilliant full-face disguise. In the original movie, it was used once at the beginning of the movie to set up the final surprise twist right at the end. It should have been used in similar manner here because, by using it several times all the way through, the audience will be way ahead of the movie on at least three occasions (and the full-face disguise is only used four times) and that is a place the audience should never, ever, ever be.

JOHN WOO – DIRECTOR

At fault in the biggest possible way, however, is director John Woo who yet again demonstrates the same awesome strengths and oh-so-frustrating weaknesses that is present in the majority of his work. John Woo is frequently acclaimed as the world’s greatest action director, which he clearly isn’t, but it remains the fashionable opinion (both James Cameron and Steven Spielberg are comfortably better than Woo – for example, see [Terminator 2: Judgement Day] and [Raiders of the Lost Ark] – even on their bad days – for example, see [True Lies] and [Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom]). Still, when Woo is good, he is very, very good and in this movie he pulls out two outstanding sequences, one of which is so good it makes the entire movie worth sitting through.

The first scene occurs about halfway through the movie and is a John Woo shootout in a laboratory featuring slo-mo dives, twists and one-handed and two-handed gunplay. The sequence is brilliantly photographed and charismatically performed by Cruise. This scene is undercut, however, by a complete lack of tension which is clearly supposed to be there.

The other sequence closes the movie and is an extended motorcycle / car chase that follows a very reasonable set of mini-action sequences in an underground storage facility. When Cruise jumps onto the motorcycle things really hot up and one of the best action sequences of any film takes place. It is worth putting up with the rest of the movie just to watch this sequence. A few years ago I saw a motorcycle stuntman perform all these incredible feats using his motorcycle including stoppies, tyre burns and even jumping off the bike while it is moving at high speed and ‘skiing’ alongside or behind it. I thought then, wouldn’t these moves be fabulous if incorporated into a Bond movie. Well, my wish has been partially fulfilled because they are all present and spectacularly correct in this movie. The sequence features a couple of beautiful explosions and culminates in what promises to be a Crusades-style jousting standoff with the protagonists on motorcycles instead of steeds. This is beautifully filmed, thoroughly exciting and very, very loud. It is, without doubt, the best sequence in the entire movie and one of the all-time greatest chase sequences in movie history. It makes you wonder why the producers and directors didn’t incorporate more action into the story…

Unfortunately, the answer is quite clear and is rather terrifying. Woo comes from a background of making movies in Hong Kong where there is a very narrow field of film-making. Martial arts action movies were king, then Woo added the gun-toting martial arts action movie to Hong Kong’s output. Though Woo clearly does love the action in movies, it is equally clear that he wishes to spread his wings as a filmmaker and since he has being making movies since 1975 ([Hand of Death]) that is entirely understandable. His most frequent quote go along the lines of “I shoot action sequences like dance scenes in classic musicals” and “I want to make a musical.” Despite Woo’s reputation as an action maestro, he clearly wants to do something else as well. Sadly, Woo has very little skill as a storyteller and his desire to do something other than action is, frankly, terrifying. Woo has only made one unequivocally decent film with American money: [Face/Off]. Whether he ever makes another of equal quality is very, very debatable. Woo sees this movie (according to the DVD commentary track) as a story about love and hate. He may see it that way but that is not what has materialised on-screen. The emotional impact Woo is clearly striving to get is completely non-existent and this renders his use of Thandie Newton completely obselete. Her character has no value in this film whatsoever, not because of Newton’s lack of ability or even because of her lines, but because of Woo’s failures.

OTHER BITS…

Other aspects of the movie include the technical accomplishment and the support cast. The technical accomplishment is good for physical effects (like stuff being blown up etc.) but the composite effects are generally far more ropey. This is rather surprising given the huge budget of the movie and considering that, admittedly unusual as it is, the effects of the first [Mission: Impossible] movie were perfect. Literally perfect.

The support cast is really wasted. Dougray Scott tries to be menacing but doesn’t succeed. The script tells us that “every hero needs a villain… every superhero needs a supervillain.” Well, Scott’s character is not a supervillain. Thandie Newton fares quite well as the world’s cutest professional thief but gets dumped by the script about halfway through. She is very, very cute and looks fabulous throughout but is clearly frequently unconvinced. The most frustrating waste is probably Ving Rhames (who bags a nice posy “and” credit) who simply sits in front of a computer screen for virtually the entire movie. The only time he gets to do anything else (get shot and fire an explosive shell from a helicopter) his potential is revealed… then quickly tucked back into place. Anthony Hopkins makes an uncredited appearance as Hunt’s boss but, unlike his work in The Mask of Zorro, he is half-hearted and looks fed-up to be there. He looks like he is simply doing it for the money (he probably was!) but even in this disinterested mode, Hopkins still manages to deliver the movie’s best lines (“She’s a woman. She’s got all the training she needs.”, “This isn’t Mission: Difficult, Mr. Hunt, it’s Mission: Impossible. Difficult should be a walk in the park.”) so brilliantly that his part takes up virtually the entire trailer and becomes the only slightly memorable dialogue from a two hour movie with rather too much talking.

There is also a notable lack of invention in the movie with many, many sequences feeling like pale copies of other, better movies; it doesn’t even come across as homage. For instance, the opening plane hijack / crash has been done to death in numerous other films but at least with those we got a plane crash or emergency landing as the punchline. As mentioned previously, we get nothing here. We also have a mountain climbing sequence reminiscent of Cliffhanger but this is brilliantly done here and it looks very much like Mr. Cruise doing his own stunts (reportedly he did). The brief car chase that brings Cruise’s and Newton’s characters together is a blatant and non-witty rip-off of Goldeneye‘s Bond’s Aston / Xenia’s Ferrari confrontation. And talking of Goldeneye, the entire plot featuring a rogue agent sounds suspiciously similar but without any of the attempts to deliver surprise or tension. That said, you would have be paying very, very close attention to be able to follow the plot at all and many people may not even realise that Ambrose is, in fact, a jealous and lesser IMF agent eager for his own day out of the shadow of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. Another Bond film visited is A View to a Kill with major sequences taking place at a horse-racing track for no reason whatsoever. Of course, the entire super-virus genre has been and gone. Wolfgang Petersen’s 1995 Outbreak managed to create genuine tension when one of its lead characters was infected and left with only a day to live. There is no similar tension here when one of the lead characters gets infected. There is even an embarrassingly uninvolving copy of the classic waterfall scene in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans where Daniel Day-Lewis tells Madeleine Stowe to ‘stay alive, I will find you.’ Other people have also noted that the plot is identical to Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious.This is a film with a strong sense of déjà vù.

All this analysis isn’t to say that the movie completely lacks entertainment value. Even though the audience will spend significant amounts of time waiting for the movie to catch up with them, Woo’s searing pace does help drag the movie through its lesser parts and his slo-mo style helps us appreciate the occasional good bit. It remains entertaining and perfectly watchable throughout but it is disappointing because the first movie promised a franchise that could deliver so much more. It’s very nearly the Wild Wild West (one outstanding action sequence surrounded by tedious rubbish) of the year 2000 but, thankfully, it is not.

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