Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Mission Impossible Series: Mission Impossible II (2000)

Mission: Impossible II (2000) 
Directed by: John Woo.
Written by: Robert Towne and Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga based on the series created by Bruce Geller.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Dougray Scott (Sean Ambrose), Thandie Newton (Nyah Hall), Ving Rhames (Luther Strickell), Richard Roxburgh (Hugh Stamp), John Polson (Billy Baird), Brendan Gleeson (McCloy), Rade Serbedzija (Dr. Nekhorvich), William Mapother (Wallis), Dominic Purcell (Ulrich), Mathew Wilkinson (Michael).
Even as the reputation for the Mission Impossible films have taken an upswing in recent years, the only film that really gets left behind is John Woo’s over-the-top, operatic Mission Impossible II. In a way, it’s easy to see why. Even by the standards of these movies, the plot is completely ridiculous and even silly. The film overuses the whole masks devices to absurd degrees. The villain is just plain boring. And Woo himself almost seems to be doing self-parody at times in the film – as if he read a bunch of reviews that mention the doves in his film, and decided to double down on them – even hinging on action sequence on a reveal that is caused by the doves themselves. Yet, in spite of all of this, I have a soft spot for this film. It isn’t great – it probably is the weakest of the series – and yet it’s still very entertaining, full of insane action sequence in which Woo tries to outdo himself. It’s also one of the only times I can remember that Tom Cruise has real live chemistry with his onscreen love interest in an action film – played by then newcomer Thandie Newton, who is so great it’s a real shame they didn’t use her again in this series. In retrospect, it was also the beginning of the end of John Woo as an Hollywood filmmaker – he’d make just two films in Hollywood after this one – Windtalkers and Paycheque – neither were very well received, and then returned to Hong Kong, where he hasn’t made a lot – and has mainly tried to do different types of films, up until this year’s Manhunt anyway. In short, Mission Impossible II is completely and totally ridiculous – but knows this, and fully embraces the ridiculousness at its core.
The plot this time involves Cruise’s Ethan Hunt being called in from his vacation to tackle another impossible mission. A Russian doctor invented both a horrible disease and the cure for that disease (why, I never really did figure out) – but as he was transporting it to America, he is double crossed by IMF Agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), who had disguised himself as Hunt, in order to steal the cure for the illness – as the first step in a very long, complicated scheme to become a pharmaceutical billionaire. Hunt’s first step is to recruit Ambrose’s ex-girlfriend Nyah Hall (Newton) – a master thief – to use as bait, and then build the rest of his team to get the cure back from Ambrose, before he can also get his hands on the illness, which would be catastrophic.
The screenplay to the movie is by the great Robert Towne, and you have to kind of assume it was a paycheque gig for the Chinatown master. His challenge was amplified by the fact that Woo already had in mind the action sequences he wanted to do, so Towne had to work a screenplay around those. In a way, the film reminded me of the Hitchcock classic Notorious (1946) – where the hero (Cary Grant) convinces the woman he supposedly loves (Ingrid Bergman) to get back together with the Nazi criminal who loved her (Claude Rains) so that they can get information about his network. Mission Impossible II doesn’t go as far as Notorious did – which makes the hero into an asshole, and the Nazi into a sympathetic character - but it shares some of the same elements.
One thing that Mission Impossible II certainly did establish, which has become a franchise mainstay, is the prospect of Tom Cruise doing insanely dangerous stunts for our amusement. The biggest one is certainly the first one, where he goes rock climbing without a rope – a sequence that admittedly has nothing to do with anything else in the movie, except that it looked cool, and showed Tom Cruise was willing to risk his life for us. The other action sequences in the film seem to mainly be designed to be bigger than the ones in the previous film. The standout sequence in DePalma’s original was the Langley sequence, with Cruise dropping down from the ceiling on a rope to hack a computer. Woo seemed to take that as a personal challenge, and designed a bigger sequence that also required Cruise to drop down – but to do so in a much bigger way. The sequence cannot touch the mastery of DePalma’s – which was more about suspense than action – but it’s still spectacular in that John Woo kind of way. The film also heavily uses guns this time around – which the previous film didn’t, but is a hallmark of Woo’s, and while it cannot rival the best work in say Hardboiled, it’s still significantly better than most people can do. Is it all ridiculous? Of course, but in a way only John Woo can pull off.
What I think makes Mission Impossible II more than just a series of crazy, over-the-top action sequences really is Thandie Newton as Nyah Hall. From the first time we see her – trying to rob a necklace from a billionaire – she is captivating. That sequence also establishes her chemistry with Cruise as they have to hide in a bathtub on top of each other – and then gives way to a lengthy foreplay sequence as they chase each other in very expensive cars. In Cruise action movies, there is almost always a love interest – but they are rarely very interesting – take poor Emmanuelle Béart in the first Mission Impossible film for example. Here, Newton more than holds her own, and actually becomes the emotional centerpiece of the movie. To a certain extent, she is a damsel in distress, but she is more than that – not a helpless victim, but an active participant. It’s odd, because Woo isn’t really known for that in his films (there’s more homoerotic subtext in his films, than heterosexual text, but it works here – and helps the film a great deal.
I’m not trying to say that Mission Impossible II is a misunderstand masterpiece. It isn’t. But it’s a misunderstood fine action film from a master of the form, who has been given a lot of money to do what he does on a large scale. Yes, it’s still probably the least of the series – but it’s still a hell of a lot of stupid fun.

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