movie review by
Gary Johnson


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Mission Impossible 2
Until I saw the name John Woo on the movie posters, I was planning on skipping Mission: Impossible 2. The first Mission: Impossible movie arrogantly crushed virtually all the classic elements of the TV show. It killed off all the show's main characters, introduced a new lead, and stripped the show of most of its intelligence, which it replaced with a headstrong rush of bullets, explosions, and broken glass. A classic television show had been gutted in favor of churning out another noisy, pre-fabricated blockbuster.

Some of these same complaints can also be leveled at Mission: Impossible 2. (I refuse to call it M:I-2, although that's what Paramount's publicity department requests.) But freed of the burden of introducing characters and plot mechanics, Mission: Impossible 2 soars. It's one of the great American action flicks of the past decade.

Director John Woo has created a tour de force of technical virtuosity. While Woo's previous American movies have contained little of the intensity or power of his work in Hong Kong (some Woo fans liked Face/Off but others thought it was a bloated bore), Mission: Impossible 2 is the work of a master cinematic stylist.

Director Brian DePalma's work in the first Mission: Impossible movie is largely anonymous. Divorced of Hitchcock-derived material, DePalma becomes just a technician, a director for hire capable of generating remarkably kinetic -- and amazingly flaccid -- imagery that wallows in hyperactive histrionics.

Likewise, Woo has generated an exceptionally absurd tale of near operatic intensity. However, Woo is so in control of the filmmaking process that he deconstructs the action genre from within. Mission: Impossible 2 works as both a straight forward action fable and as a parody of the genre's excessive elements. Woo doesn't exactly have his tongue in his cheek. There is nothing condescending or campy about this movie. Yet, it's difficult to take much that happens seriously. Mission: Impossible 2 is so over-the-top it ultimately distances itself from the violence onscreen. For example, Woo wastes little time suggesting Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has near-superhuman abilities. The first time we see Ethan, he's rock climbing in the American Southwest -- hanging off the sheer face of a red rock cliff, without any safety lines to save him should he fall.

Throughout the movie, luck shines favorably on Ethan Hunt. He is apparently aligned with the great forces of fate and therefore can do little wrong. That's the guiding principle here -- much more so than intelligence or skill. You can feel the theater audience respond to this element of luck as they feed off of Ethan's privileged status. Much of the movie's energy comes from this sense that Ethan isn't a mere mortal but instead a comic book super hero, a savior of the world, like Neo in The Matrix.

Admittedly, someone might take the exact same arguments when condemning the movie, but they would be missing the point (not to mention the fun). Director Woo's visuals reinforce Ethan's privileged status -- capturing him in slow motion elegance as he twists sideways on his motorcycle, riding on just one tire. He pivots, aims his gun, and fires while a car slides past him. Woo's barrage of balletic visuals reinforces the improbabilities while at the same time convinces us that Ethan is capable of doing whatever is necessary to succeed. As Ethan's superior (Anthony Hopkins) points out, "This isn't Mission: Difficult. This is Mission: Impossible."

Ethan's demi-god status is a bastardization of the Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) character from the television series. So to appreciate this movie, you must forget virtually everything you know about Mission: Impossible and just let the movie work its vicious but playful brand of magic.

Screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) has concocted a script that cribs liberally from Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. After a strain of super lethal bio-engineered influenza is stolen, Ethan must track down the ex-flame of the master criminal and convince her to infiltrate the enemy's home/fortress under the guise of love (and in return for the promise of expunging her own extensive criminal record). Ethan's superior sees nothing ethically wrong with this plan and suggests she won't be doing anything different from what millions of women do every night -- go to bed with men they don't love. But during Ethan's cat-and-mouse pursuit of the lovely Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton of Besieged and Beloved), he falls in love (just like Cary Grant did with Ingrid Bergman in Notorious), so now the prospect of pushing her into the hands of the enemy fills Ethan with anger and angst.

Along the way, Cruise gets to reprise his rappelling act from the first movie, but now -- because everything is bigger this go-round -- he doesn't simply dangle from the ceiling of a room: he dangles from a helicopter, through a roof-top ventilation grate (which only opens for 40 seconds!), and down over 20 stories into the guts of a skyscraper. This leads to a magnificent battle sequence that goes nearly as far as The Matrix in terms of broken glass, shattered concrete walls, hails of bullets, and showers of sparks. The comparison with The Matrix is appropriate because Ethan, like Neo (Keanu Reeves), is capable of taking on entire armies and surviving. He might not be capable of dodging bullets exactly, but as Woo's slow-motion camera reveals, Ethan performs near-equal acts of strength and stamina. His work with a motorcycle, for example, could almost qualify as a circus act.

Unlike The Matrix or Notorious, this movie doesn't have much resonance. It's a relatively hollow exercise in pyrotechnics and close calls. But thanks to Woo's gloriously over-the-top visuals, Mission: Impossible 2 never ceases to produce one astonishing sequence after the next. This is John Woo's first great American action movie.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]