SEQUELISED: Mission: Impossible II (2000)

Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, but is it a classic or more of a shampoo commercial? Cal revisits John Woo’s sequel. 

Who made it?: John Woo (Director), Robert Towne (Writer), Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner (Producers), Paramount Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton, Ving Rhames, Richard Roxburgh, John Polson.

Tagline: “Expect the impossible again.”

IMDb rating: 6.0/10.

With Hong Kong action filmmaker extraordinaire John Woo at the helm, Mission: Impossible II is a radical change of pace from its 1996 predecessor. Rather than a densely-plotted spy thriller, M:I-2 is a bit more straightforward, retaining the espionage business whilst letting Woo engage in his favourite past-time: staging elaborate bullet ballets. M:I-2 is undoubtedly the black sheep of the Mission: Impossible series, yet it’s nowhere near as awful or unwatchable as its harshest critics contend. Certainly, it is subpar if perceived as an adaptation of the 1960s TV show, but as a standalone action movie, it does have its merits, hollow though it may be.

The Biocyte Pharmaceutical Corporation has developed a deadly new virus known as Chimera, which has the ability to kill infected hosts twenty hours after exposure. Russian bio-chemical expert Dr. Vladimir Nekhorvich (Rade Serbedzija) wishes to deliver the lethal pathogen to the IMF (Impossible Missions Force), but the package is intercepted in transit by rogue agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), who hopes to unleash the virus on the public and make a fortune by manufacturing the antidote. The IMF assigns Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) to uncover the extent of Ambrose’s scheme and prevent him from achieving his goals. For assistance, Hunt calls upon old friend Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Australian pilot Billy Baird (John Polson). Added to this, Hunt is forced to recruit Ambrose’s ex-girlfriend Nyah (Thandie Newton) to spy and provide intelligence back to the IMF.

Woo’s original cut of M:I-2 reportedly clocked in at a mammoth three-and-a-half hours, but the studio balked at such a length. Extensive editing was therefore conducted to reduce the runtime to a more serviceable two hours, and the final product does bear the earmarks of a longer film that was truncated in the editing room, as various transitions do feel rushed and awkward. The screenplay, penned by Robert Towne (Chinatown), does bear several narrative similarities to Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, though there isn’t a great deal of complexity or intelligence here. Surprisingly, the first hour or so of M:I-2 is dedicated to setup, espionage and exposition; there is practically no action until about the seventy-minute mark, when Woo is finally permitted to cut loose and orchestrate plenty of pulse-pounding action sequences. It’s undeniable that the movie is less successful in its early stages, with so-so pacing and storytelling, but the effort to do something more than pure action is appreciated nevertheless.

Whereas most movie franchises maintain a similar tone and aesthetic throughout each entry, the Mission: Impossible series is a different beast, recruiting a new director for each instalment, and wildly changing up the formula. M:I-2 is a John Woo action movie first and foremost, with the foreign filmmaker being called upon to put his indelible cinematic stamp on the material. There are plenty of firearms here, on top of slow-motion shots, doves taking flight, a pulse-pounding soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, and even some impressively-choreographed fisticuffs. It’s all standard-order stuff with extended shootouts and some vehicular mayhem, but Woo’s style does elevates the material above the ordinary. As long as you can excuse the silliness of the entire enterprise, M:I-2 is an enormously entertaining sit. A number of action beats do feel neutered, however – the picture was originally rated R, but the violence was reportedly trimmed considerably. The action sequences in Brian De Palma’s original movie were fine within the constraints of a PG-13 rating, but it’s undeniable that Woo’s bullet ballets would have been more enjoyable and coherent with the freedom of an R rating.

The portrayal of Hunt here is vastly different compared to the first film. For this second instalment, Cruise plays a charismatic, highly-capable killing machine; a cartoon with an itchy trigger finger. In short, here’s a stock action hero. There isn’t much emotional or dramatic depth to the role, with the trademark love tangent failing to take flight in any significant way. Still, Cruise definitely puts his best foot forward here, coming across as believable in the role. Cruise is surrounded by a decent supporting cast, with Scott doing fine as the villain, while Newton doesn’t make much of an impact as Nyah. More successful are Hunt’s under-utilised colleagues; Rhames is an amusing treat reprising his role of Luther, while Polson adds plenty of colour to the proceedings. Anthony Hopkins is even present here, giving a bit of gravitas to his small, uncredited role as Hunt’s mission commander.

Mission: Impossible II lacks the smarts of the first movie, and it is definitely the weakest of the M:I movies to date, but one cannot help but be thrilled by the chutzpah of Woo’s action scenes; they definitely ensure that the feature is worth a look. Indeed, once the movie kicks into high gear and that iconic theme kicks in, it’s a total gas.

Best Scene

Ethan Hunt and motorcycles, eh? See you in Rogue Nation.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • This is the first movie that Metallica ever agreed to write a song for.
  • For the “knife-in-the-eye” scene, Tom Cruise insisted that a real knife be used, and that it stop exactly one quarter-inch from his eyeball, instead of somewhere vaguely near his eye, as John Woo suggested. The knife itself was connected to a cable that was measured carefully in order to achieve the effect and Cruise insisted that Dougray Scott use all his strength in the ensuing struggle.
  • The famous rock climbing sequence was filmed at Dead Horse Point in Utah. Cruise was on cables which were then digitally removed. Ron Kauk was the climbing double and the overhang stunt was performed by main stunt double, Keith Campbell. John Woo was so scared each time but “Tom insisted on doing it.”
  • Scott was originally slated to play Wolverine in X-Men (2000), but had to pull out when shooting on this film went into overtime.

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