M:I-2 has very little to do with Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996, review here). And that is by design. Producer and star Tom Cruise told director John Woo prior to filming that (according to Woo on the audio commentary), “there’s no need to connect to the first one, and no need to worry about the original TV series.” This bold strategy is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it defined the film series for the first decade of its existence, and in particular it differentiated it from contemporary spy series like James Bond or Jack Ryan, both of which attempted a fairly uniform look and feel to define their respective brands, even as the lead actors changed. It gave the Mission: Impossible franchise a reputation as a director’s series, in stark contrast to 007 where at that point the producers very much still called the shots, and they tended to hire journeyman directors rather than auteurs. On the other hand, it made the series wildly uneven, and frustrating for fans both new (from the first film) and old (going back to either Bruce Geller’s original 1966-73 TV series, or else the 1988-90 revival series, both of which had starred Peter Graves).
Like Brian De Palma, John Woo was very much an auteur. He’d made his mark directing wildly stylized, gonzo Hong Kong action movies including out and out masterpieces like Bullet in the Head (1990) and The Killer (1989). Then he came to America and worked his way up all over again from generic Jean-Claude Van Damme fare (Hard Target) to lame but stylish mainstream action blockbusters (the unauthorized Thunderball remake Broken Arrow). In 2000 he was riding high, having just come off the one genuine masterpiece of his Hollywood period, Face/Off (1997). He was definitely an exciting choice to leave his mark on the still nascent Mission: Impossible film series… but ultimately proved a poor match.
Auteur directors are among the only things the first two Mission: Impossible movies have in common. Besides that, there are two common actors, Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames… though neither really seems like he’s even playing the same character as in the first film, despite having the same names. There are masks. There is a setpiece that involves dangling. There is the iconic Lalo Schifrin theme, though it’s barely used in the sequel. And then there’s a shared pedigree. Not so much Geller’s TV show, but Alfred Hitchcock movies. While De Palma’s film took its cue from the great director’s man-on-the-run movies like North By Northwest and Saboteur, Woo’s finds its starting point with To Catch a Thief and Notorious (both clearly big influences on the director’s career, both of which he had already mined to better effect in two different versions of Once A Thief).
We meet Ethan this time around on vacation. (Not to the strains of the Mission: Impossible theme, but to horrible late 90s "vacation music.") And what he does for relaxation might explain his seeming need to engage in impossible feats of derring-do in his career. He’s relaxing by climbing an enormous, intimidating rock face without any safety equipment. And he’s not rock climbing for fun like Captain Kirk & Co. rock climb for fun. He’s jumping from rock face to rock face, and risking death each time. When he finds himself dangling by one arm, instead of panicking like I would do, he grins like he’s loving this, twists himself around (a good opportunity to show off Cruise’s impressive biceps), and flips up onto the cliff. (Ethan does a lot of flipping in this movie.) A helicopter arrives and shoots a piton into the rock face next to him. He removes a pair of sunglasses form the hollow piton (really, really cool sunglasses—too cool), puts them on, and gets his mission briefing that way. And this scene demonstrates from the start what’s wrong with this movie as a Mission: Impossible movie.
The classic mission briefing traditionally comes from an ordinary, everyday item in a normal urban or suburban setting. It’s the juxtaposition of the mundane with the exotic that makes these unexpected briefings fun. In the first film, it came via an in-flight movie—an experience any audience member can relate to. In this one it comes from a pair of wrap-around Oakleys stuffed inside a missile shot from a helicopter atop an insurmountable cliff. And instead of getting a classic briefing, the sunglasses basically just tell Ethan to go to Seville and recruit a civilian—a thief—named Nyah Nirdoff-Hall. Then he’ll get his real briefing in person. Oh, and of course the message will self-destruct in a matter of seconds, no matter how cool Cruise looks in the shades. He throws them at the camera and they burst into those uncanny orange digital flames that so many things will burst into throughout the movie, and those flames become the main titles. Needless to say, they’re not nearly as cool as the ones in the first film that paid homage to the TV series.
In Seville, the To Catch a Thief part of Ethan’s mission kicks in first. He glimpses Nyah (the beautiful Thandie Newton, not yet the caliber of actress she would mature into) across a dance floor where flamenco dancers promenade, and they lock eyes. It’s a good encounter, as Woo and composer Hans Zimmer work hard to make it something special with alternating film speeds (the slow motion hasn’t gotten old yet), and a music-only soundtrack. The track, “Seville,” is the diagetic sound of the music the dancers are dancing to, but with all other sounds faded out. Yet Cruise and Newton don’t dance—at least not physically.
She disappears upstairs to rob the place, and he follows. He catches her trying to steal a necklace, but aids her instead of stopping her, flirting all the while with a huge grin on his face. (Cruise’s main acting techniques in this one are “grin” and “flip.”) They end up in a dry bathtub on top of each other, and it’s a fun, sexy scene—though a lot of the credit for that has to go to Newton’s amazing push-up bra. But before she can make off with the invaluable necklace she’s after, he (unbeknownst to her) spoils her score and sets off an alarm. Then he pretends like she’s his associate, testing the security of the villa (that old chestnut!), throwing her a lifeline and beginning her recruitment. He assumes she’s needed on the team for her skills as a thief, and he pitches her that way. But she still eludes him, driving off in an Audi convertible. He follows in a topless Porsche, and now they finally get to dance—in their respective sports cars.
As the cars “dance” with each other in some extremely dangerous driving along twisty, cliff-side roads (are there any other kind in spy movies?), Ethan continues to pitch her, speaking from car to car. I certainly respect the idea of Ethan’s recruitment pitch for Nyah coming from car to car during a high speed chase/race (even if GoldenEye had it first and executed it better—and nonverbally), but it’s impossible to believe they could hear each other over the engines of their open top Porsche and Audi! Then they start spinning out locked together and the soundtrack goes purely music again in “Nyah,” the movie’s signature tune, recalling the flamenco number that played when they first met. Again, the idea is cool, but the main problem is that now the slow motion is starting to get old… and we’re only twenty minutes in! And, frankly, instead of underscoring the grace of this automotive ballet, Zimmer’s slow, lusty, Latin-flavored dance music saps the scene of all energy. The romantic angle doesn’t work; this is a scene that requires pulse-pounding Schifrin material, and it’s nowhere to be found. Scored differently, I think I might love this scene. But as it stands, I do not. I feel like the combination of seduction and cars should make the seduction extra exciting, not make the car chase boring. (And seduction should never be boring to begin with! “Boring” and “romantic” are not the same.)
Even Woo doesn’t seem convinced with his own execution, because he follows this scene up with a more traditional seduction scene (which shouldn’t be necessary if the car dance had achieved its goals), and Cruise, saddled with lines like, “Damn, you’re beautiful!” just isn’t as smooth as Pierce Brosnan always managed to be in such situations. I guess if you look like Cruise, it doesn’t really matter what you say.
The reason the seduction is so important is because it’s setting up a Notorious relationship between the characters, echoing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman’s oft-repeated handler/agent conflicted romance. Ethan thinks he’s recruiting Nyah for her skills as a thief (because his boss led him to believe that in the sunglasses briefing), but it turns out it’s because she’s the ex-girlfriend of the evil IMF turncoat who’s stolen a deadly virus called Chimera. Yes, they’re already repeating the IMF turncoat villain, right after Jon Voight’s evil Phelps in the first movie. This time it’s Sean Ambrose, who doubled Ethan on several assignments, and he’s played by Dougray Scott (briefly famous around the time of this movie for not being Wolverine). Ethan learns that Nyah is his ex when his boss breaks all IMF protocol and materializes in the flesh, rather than as a disembodied voice on a recording. And that flesh belongs to Anthony Hopkins (basically playing M), who instructs Ethan to use Nyah to get to Ambrose—a scenario Ethan is decidedly unhappy with, now that they’ve shared the magical automotive courtship ritual. The Hopkins exchange, unorthodox though it may be in IMF lore, does provide the film’s best line in this exchange:
“You mean it will be difficult?”
“Well, this is not Mission: Difficult, Mr. Hunt; it’s Mission: Impossible. Difficult should be a walk in the park for you.”
Besides that colorful bit, though, poor Hopkins must have felt embarrassed by some of the dialogue he’s saddled with (especially in a post-Basil Exposition world)—and by having to define the words he uses (“Her criminal record will be expunged… wiped out”) for the benefit of audiences to whom Woo gives zero credit.
The seduction and the Hopkins meet both take place in Seville against the backdrop of a Fire Festival. Officially it’s something about “burning their saints,” to hear Hopkins tell it, but for the sake of the movie (and Woo), it’s simply a Fire Festival. Which is the perfect setting for a movie where everything is flammable! And where style rules supremely over substance.
From the fire festival, the film’s action moves to Australia, where it remains for the duration. (Seeing IMF agents in an Australian setting makes me think of the TV revival series that was shot there.) Ambrose has a house on Sydney Harbor where he lives with his gang of heavies (including Moulin Rouge’s Richard Roxburgh and Lost’s William Malpother—Cruise’s cousin), and the pharmaceutical company that manufactured Chimera is based there. Nyah is a virtual prisoner of Ambrose, briefly meeting Ethan (in one of the film’s best scenes) at a racetrack to pass on what she’s learned—and what she’s stolen. But in doing so, she compromises herself, and Ambrose confirms his suspicions by putting on an Ethan Hunt mask and tricking her. I’m not totally sure why she buys it, since in his utter disdain for subtlety, Woo has Cruise play the masked Ambrose as Evil Ethan, an evil smirk supplanting his usual mischievous grin, and an evil glint in his eyes replacing the regular sparkle. That’s too bad, because as written this was probably a fairly effective scene, underscoring the horror of your romantic partner being replaced by an unreliable doppelganger.
The main problem with M:I-2 is that it’s not really a Mission: Impossible movie. Not remotely. Sure there’s an IMF team for support on hand in Sydney (Rhames back as Luthor, again handling tech, and John Polson as likable Aussie agent Billy Baird, a role he reprised in a video game but sadly never in another movie), but they don’t do anything very Impossible. All that is up to Tom Cruise. There’s no big con. Even when there is a con, pulled on pharmaceutical boss Brendan Gleeson (right out of a TV episode, in a nice touch), a masked Ethan is the only one involved! The best cons in both the show and the films involve all the team members. Woo does add a nice innovation to the masks, though. They’re now accompanied by little voice changing strips worn as stickers on the neck like Breathe-Rights for mimicking other people’s speech! That touch would remain part of the series mythology moving forward—about the only element of M:I-2 ever referenced in subsequent installments.
Ambrose accurately assesses Ethan’s operational M.O., predicting (correctly) that “He’ll undoubtedly engage in some… aerobatic insanity… before he’ll risk harming a hair on a security guard’s head” when he, inevitably, breaks into the pharmaceutical company to destroy Chimera before Ambrose can get his hands on it. The big break-in plays like a poor retread of the CIA heist scene in the first film, right down to Hunt dangling in an ab-busting horizontal hanging position. Woo’s slow motion tricks (applied to a retracting cable) rob the scene of the real-time intensity of De Palma’s break-in. The whole heist then quickly devolves into a standard, slo-mo-happy John Woo shootout, something De Palma avoided altogether in his movie.
Zimmer’s score remains to date the weakest in the series, devolving into generic sounds during action and integrating world music (to generally better effect, barring that first car seduction) and generally terrible, of-the-moment pop songs at other times. He avoids Schifrin’s iconic theme for the most part, which is a shame because that theme arguably gives Cruise himself a run for his money as the franchise’s greatest asset. Its absence contributes greatly to this film not feeling like a Mission: Impossible movie. What I will say for Zimmer’s score is that it’s the perfect accompaniment to things catching on digital orange fire (and, I'll admit, real fire as well) in slow motion… so maybe it is ideal for this film, even if it’s far from ideal for the series. When the electric guitar-heavy arrangement of the theme does (sparingly) kick in, it should be more effective after all this deprivation, but surprisingly it doesn’t work that way coming over a decidedly lackluster action scene involving motorcycles, regular late 90s cars, a helicopter, and lots of slow motion fire. (I note the regularness of the cars because their extreme mundaneness makes it feel like an episode of late 90s television more than a mega-budget tent pole movie.) It doesn’t work at all. It doesn’t accentuate the action; somehow a theme that should work with just about any action instead seems to play counter to it, just so much background noise. The music is also enough of its era (like Eric Serra’s GoldenEye) that it combines with those regular 90s cars, that digital fire, and Woo’s already overused stylistic clichés to make M:I-2 feel far more dated than The World is not Enough or Die Another Day, the Bond films immediately bookending it. Viewed now, in fact, it’s hard to believe they’re even from the same era!
Almost as generic as Zimmer’s music, Robert Towne’s script is full of clichéd lines like “every hero needs a great villain” (repeated ad nauseum) and “You’ll stay alive! I’m not going to lose you!” (shouted by Cruise, rather than delivered), and their wretchedness is exacerbated by Woo’s overly earnest, utterly humorless direction, leaden with slow motion and artful audio dropouts. (Though his camera movement, at least, cannot be faulted, lending the film what little excitement it does manage to generate.)
The highly touted (at the time) Big Stunt, in which Ethan and Ambrose ride their motorcycles at one another and then jump off (in slow motion, of course), tackling each other in the air as the bikes supposedly collide and explode, plays now as ridiculous rather than cool. It doesn’t even make spatial or physical sense. We follow the two antagonists flying off (somehow to the side, even though their momentums were both forward), then cut back to the bikes, colliding and exploding in a whole different place, rather than directly under our combatants, as they logically should. (But of course that would kill them.) It’s stupid, and not in a cool way. Speaking of “cool,” Woo’s signature directorial flourishes, already clichés in Hollywood after being done to death previously in Hong Kong, reek of desperation (like Cruise’s Oakleys at the beginning) rather than the genuine cool they conveyed in the heyday of the director’s collaborations with Chow Yun Fat. His beloved doves may be mostly usurped by pigeons (perhaps they flew in from a John Glen Bond movie?), but their omnipresence during any explosions (or preceding Cruise into a room when a slow motion entrance is meant to be especially cool) quickly becomes laughable. Amidst the ubiquitous birds, Ethan does lots more flips (lots of flips, even when they're entirely uncalled for), all of them in slow motion. It seems like not a single action beat unfolds at normal speed. M:I-2 plays like a parody of a John Woo movie!
Woo doesn’t let up on the heavy-handed touches during breaks in the action, either, cutting to slow motion shots of an infected Nyah wandering around Sidney’s coastal cliffs looking to heroically kill herself (to avoid infecting others) as Lisa Gerrard wails wordlessly on the soundtrack. But that’s not enough. We also have to cut to a flashback of her selflessly injecting herself with the virus—as if we’d forgotten an event that occurred half an hour earlier. Honestly, Woo gives his audiences credit for nothing!
After a lot of punching in a mind-numbing machismo-fest fight on a beach between Cruise and Scott, Woo stages his version of a Sergio Leone gunfight at the finale… but of course it’s preposterously filled with slow motion shots of guns being kicked up into the air and caught. And the only reason that Ethan doesn’t get shot dead by Ambrose is because of the slow motion! Events unfold at normal speed for the handicapped Ambrose, but in slo-mo for Ethan, giving him the extra edge he needs to win the day. Instead of a battle of wits, the movie ends with a big, dumb fight on a beach. Adding insult to injury, audiences are finally subjected to Limp Bizcuit’s appalling vocals sung over Lalo Schifrin’s theme in the final moments of the credit crawl. (Though, to their credit, the band’s instrumental is pretty inspired and the wordless karaoke version is worth downloading.) It’s a bad end to a generally bad experience.
With five films to look back on now, this one doesn’t even feel like part of the same series as the others. It doesn’t feel like Cruise is playing the same character, it doesn’t feel like the IMF has the same mandate, and it doesn’t feel like the writers even tried to con the audience (in a good way), because they had so little respect for them and their abilities to follow that sort of narrative. (This may have been in response to criticism at the time that the first movie was too complex for its own good and difficult to follow… which it wasn’t.) M:I-2 is the entry you can safely skip in a franchise re-watch marathon, and be no worse off for doing so. On the bright side, the series could only go up from here!
The DVD and Blu-ray offer a few interesting features, including an alternate title sequence that’s slightly cooler than the one that they went with (but still not cool like the one in the first film or Rogue Nation). “Mission: Improbable” asks you to answer a simple trivia question about the movie in order to see the classic 2000 MTV Movie Awards bit where Ben Stiller plays Cruise’s stunt double “Tom Crooze.” This sketch is the best thing on the disc, and John Woo is the best part of the sketch, humorously summoning Stiller as, “Other Tom!” There’s a music video for Metallica’s “I Disappear,” the first (and superior) song to play over the end credits. The song doesn’t sound remotely “Mission: Impossible,” but the video picks up the slack with Lars Ulrich getting chased by a biplane, James Hetfield outrunning a huge blast in a muscle car, and other spy-like situations. (It sort of reminds me of Duran Duran’s shabby spy integration in their “A View to a Kill” video, which I love.) Ironically, the video shows more self-restraint in its use of slow motion than the movie does! Finally, there’s a commentary with Woo, worth listening to for that revelation about not needing to tie in with the first movie or series.
|"You and me both, buddy."|
TV Moments: The fake virus con on McCloy (Gleeson), lots of mask business
Dangling: Straight copy of the first film, breaking into Biocyte, as well as some one-armed cliff-dangling at the beginning
Rogue Agents: The main villain, Sean Ambrose, who has his own IMF-style team
Rogue Ethan: Nope. For once, Hunt is a Company Man!
Fashion Alert: Ethan’s hairstyle, deplorably late 90s long and meticulously coiffed, seemingly for the sole purpose of volume when his head turns in slow motion... and his sunglasses, then the epitome of cool… for about six months.
Buy M:I-2 on Blu-ray on Amazon
Read my review of Mission: Impossible (1996) here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Second TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The First TV Season here.