Mission: Impossible II Review
Whether or not you approved on the direction they took in the first Mission: Impossible movie – wiping out the beloved team from the TV series in favour of a more solo operation – one thing was clear by the end of it: this was Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series. Continuing my movie-a-day retrospective look at the franchise, from its Brian De Palma-directed debut outing, all the way through to the new cinema instalment, Ghost Protocol, we now turn to Mission: Impossible II, the troubled-but-stylish first sequel.
Aside from cementing the fact that this series was definitely going to be Tom Cruise’s baby, the release of the second movie established one further thing: every single movie would be vastly different in style, because Cruise wanted to use a series of distinctive directors to direct every subsequent instalment.
Initially Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July, Natural Born Killers) was attached to direct – and he even wrote an early treatment – but this was back when the sequel was intended as an immediate follow-up to the first movie; Cruise’s work on Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut ultimately delayed this and he had to leave the project as a result. I’m sure many would have liked to have seen what Stone’s conspiratorial mind would do to the series, not to mention his often frenzied style, but, alas, it was not to be – instead we got an equally different style, that of Hong Kong director John Woo.
“We’ve just rolled up a snowball and tossed it into hell. Now let’s see what chance it’s got.”
Woo had made his name doing heroic bloodshed movies in Hong Kong with Chow Yun-Fat, culminating in the exceptional actioner Hard Boiled. His style was just about as distinctive as it comes: pure action through-and-through; lots of two-handed gunplay; and basically everything was up for slo-mo. The scripts were flimsy, the characterisation was flawed, and the dialogue was dodgy, but as examples of beautiful balletic ballistic action, Woo could never be beaten. Taking his style to Hollywood, he found directing in the West really quite difficult, encountering problems with the Studios on pretty-much every single film he directed there – and he only did 6 movies in the US. Hard Target, his first feature, was taken out of his hands, re-edited and censored; Broken Arrow, his second feature was plagued my more aggressive Studio ‘management’, and it was not until Face/Off that he was given full freedom to show his talents. The end result? One of his best films, and certainly his best US effort by a long way.
His next feature in the US was Mission: Impossible II, and since he was at the peak of his Hollywood power, he brought the full weight of his stylistic predispositions to bear, crafting a movie that was the polar opposite of Brian De Palma’s more intelligent first feature. This was still Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible, only this time done in the style of John Woo.
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves the recovery of a stolen item designated ‘Chimera’.”
The story sees IMF agent Ethan Hunt disturbed on vacation after a leading scientist is killed by rogue IMF operative, Sean Ambrose. Hunt’s new mission is to infiltrate Ambrose’s organisation, find out what he got out of the scientist, and retrieve it; he is told to recruit professional thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall to assist, but soon finds himself romantically involved with her – just before he is told that the reason why she’s on his team is because she used to date Ambrose, and her role in the mission is to resume her relationship with the psychopath and pass information back to Hunt from the inside. Despite abhorring the idea, Hunt is forced to send her into the lion’s den, the mission now imperative as it turns out that the murdered scientist was working on a super-virus which can kill its victims within 32 hours of infection; a virus which Ambrose intends to release into the population if he isn’t stopped.
In much the same way as for the first movie, the story to Mission: Impossible II would be subject to serious changes as a result of the new director – Brian De Palma focussed the script around a series of key set-pieces, and John Woo would go on to do the exact same thing. Although the same writer would be brought on board to complete the script (Chinatown’s Robert Towne), he would be directed to shift the focus to a series of action scenes that Woo wanted to make happen.
The central plot concerned a virus and an anti-virus, both of which Ethan Hunt is supposed to retrieve – the filmmakers went to great lengths to simplify the narrative in part as a result to initial audience reactions towards the first movie’s story, namely that it was too complicated (there is even dialogue between the characters to reference the fact).
Unfortunately, Woo would introduce his own symbolic subtext into the mix – only with Woo, symbolism is more like blunt force trauma. What he hoped would be a Romeo & Juliet-style relationship between Ethan Hunt and the thief he has to recruit, Nyah, feels often contrived and defined by frankly ludicrous foreplay (they decide to crash their cars into one another whilst racing along a cliff-side road – are we supposed to be thrilled or just regard the characters as absolute morons? Sorry, I forgot, we’re in a John Woo movie...); what he hoped would be an epic battle between Cruise’s Hunt and his arch-enemy, rogue agent Sean Ambrose, ended up being something of a poor man’s Face/Off (especially as a result of the Studio-imposed PG-13 rating).
Woo notes on the commentary that he wanted to make this a romantic Mission: Impossible story, but it seems clear that his primary intention was to relate the tale that was symbolised by the Greek myth that the characters hark on about at least half a dozen times across the runtime: that of the fabled hero Bellerophon, who rose up to defeat the great half-lion, half-serpent beast, Chimera. This was actually supposed to symbolise the journey of Cruise’s IMF operative, who effectively graduates from exceptional agent to super-spy in order to tackle the villainous and deadly Ambrose. Of course, as is often the case with Woo’s ‘symbolism’, he spends too much of the time confusing the simple script with what feels like blunt story exposition, so much so that few people even bother to think about the fact that he’s not really talking about a virus and an anti-virus, he’s talking about the very hero and villain of the movie.
“Every search for a hero must begin with something every hero needs, a villain. So in a search for our hero, Bellerophon, we have created a more effective monster: Chimera.”
The concept of introducing a strong arch-villain – a true nemesis for the lead character – in the first sequel of a franchise was certainly not unusual in the spy thriller genre. Bond had been doing it for decades: after his debut in Dr No, Sean Connery’s Bond would go on to face enemy assassin Major Grant in the second movie, From Russia with Love (a film which even featured a clever bit of disguise usage during the pre-credits sequence); after Roger Moore’s debut in Live and Let Die, he would then go on to face off against the world’s deadliest professional assassin in his second movie as Bond, The Man with the Golden Gun. Hell, even Bourne Supremacy introduced us to a seriously tough antagonist for the amnesiac superspy.
Mission: Impossible II would follow suit in this regard, and, together with the integral love triangle, there was actually a fairly good foundation upon which to base the sequel (it was, after all, essentially a remake of Hitchcock's Notorious), one which would only be brought down by the limited supporting performance of Thandie Newton, the censors’ restrictions on a PG-13 movie (it was originally R-rated), and the Studio’s insistence that the film be trimmed to a reasonable runtime (as was often the case for Woo movies, his first cut would not only be considerably more violent, but actually unmanageably long – here coming in at a whopping three-and-a-half hours’ long. With Woo insisting that all of his scenes were integral to the narrative, Paramount brought Stuart Baird (the man who directed Executive Decision and Star Trek: Nemesis) in to re-edit the film down to its theatrical two-hour runtime. Sure, Mission: Impossible II was never likely to go down in anybody’s book as an intelligent action-thriller, but one has to wonder what the longer cut would have been like, and whether or not it may have cleared up one or two glaring plot-holes strewn across the narrative.
You can understand why the Studios wanted a shorter film: not least because 3+ hours for an actioner was unprecedented, but also because of the frankly terrible performance from one of the key players, Thandie Newton, as the girl at the centre of the pivotal love triangle, Nyah. Across her career, there’s no doubt that Newton has had a few decent moments, but this was definitely not one of them – undoubtedly hampered by some clumsy dialogue (“What are you gonna’ do, spank me?!”), she seems totally uncommitted to the project and her delivery is often stilted at best. In one supposedly tragic scene her performance feels so unconvincing that it nearly derails the solid efforts from both Cruise and Scott around her (She would go on to be nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actress and, if it wasn’t for Battlefield: Earth – which cleaned up at the Raspberries that year – she would have no doubt won it!).
The other IMF team players would also be poorly chosen and/or disappointing, with Australian Actor/Director John Polson coming across as nothing short of bloody irritating as the helicopter pilot recruited to join the team (in the extra features he notes that it does not make sense that Hunt would chose his character out of all the possible IMF operatives), which also includes Ving Rhames’s returning character, hacker Luther Stickell. Rhames played against type in the first Mission: Impossible film, and, despite the pleasing continuity of having his character return, there really was no added benefit from having him onboard this piece, often relegated to providing lame cover fire from a helicopter, frequently pre-occupied with concerns over getting his Versace clothing damaged. Sigh.
“So you think it will be difficult?”
“Well, Mr Hunt, this isn’t Mission: Difficult, this is Mission: Impossible. ‘Difficult’ should be a walk in the park for you.”
At least Anthony Hopkins would make for a good mission commander, on top scene-stealing form despite his limited extended cameo (which has distinct nods towards his celebrated role as Hannibal, particularly when he describes how a body was discovered in a luggage container), and easily given the best dialogue in the entire movie.
Dougray Scott would also fare well as the psychotic antagonist, Sean Ambrose, providing a tactical and physical match to Tom Cruise’s newly-buff Ethan Hunt, but I can’t help but think that he must have been disappointed to miss out on the chance to play Wolverine in the first X-Men movie as a result of the shooting on this film going over schedule (Spielberg’s Minority Report would be similarly affected by the delays, but, of course, in that instance there’s no choice but to wait for a star like Cruise to become available).
Mirroring the oft-overlooked performances in Face/Off, where Travolta actually delivers a pretty excellent impersonation of Nic Cage for the majority of the runtime, some of the often forgotten high points in Mission: Impossible II would revolve around Ambrose pretending to be Ethan Hunt – of course, Cruise would be playing these scenes and he actually comes across as a surprisingly effective bad guy. And in one dramatic moment, he does his best Daniel Day-Lewis / The Last of the Mohicans impression, crying out “Just stay alive! I’m not gonna’ lose you!” with distinctly borrowed intonation.
All that would be obscured by action, however, and by the extreme lengths that Woo would go to in order to make his hero into a true Bellerophon. Cruise had previously brought Hunt to life as a strategist, first and foremost, but here, whilst he gets to plan out missions and use disguises to trick his opponents, all of this ultimately goes out of the window when he cracks out his twin Beretta 92Fs (Woo’s trademark weapons of choice) and starts blasting away at opponents whilst somersaulting in slo-mo. Credit to the two of them, whilst the action may not have been as landmark as that of The Matrix, released just a year earlier, there’s no doubt that the set-pieces here are extremely well choreographed, and that Cruise makes for not only a convincing full-on action hero, but also manages to look pretty effortlessly cool to boot. It may be cheesy as all hell, but it’s grin-inducingly cool nonetheless – just check out the moment where he shoots backwards on the motorcycle using the side mirror if you want proof.
“If you look at Hunt's operational history, and I have, you'll notice that he invariably favors misdirection over confrontation. He’d rather engage in some kind of aerobatic insanity than hurt a single hair on a guard’s head.”
Perhaps that’s the rub with Mission: Impossible II – despite the script and story problems; the occasionally limited supporting performances and sometimes clunky dialogue; the ongoing quarrels between Woo and Cruise (as both the star and the producer, Cruise often fought with the director, insisting on doing many of the most dangerous stunts himself – including the stunning opening rock climbing sequence, where he tore his shoulder, as well as the trademark wire-drop set-piece and most of the motorcycle stunts, and also the scene where the knife – a real blade – is held a quarter of an inch away from his eyeball!); and despite the drastic re-editing done without the director’s approval, there is no doubt that this sequel is still an intoxicatingly entertaining Summer blockbuster actioner. A prime example of a classic guilty pleasure movie, Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible in the style of John Woo was an exercise in effective style over substance, and, by the end of it all, despite its flaws, and despite the fact that it is commonly and rightfully regarded as the weakest entry in the series, you still can’t help but get swept away by the re-jigged rock-inspired soundtrack and the superb classic Woo slo-mo gun-fu action.
Expect the impossible again.