MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II
What if Notorious had explosions and kind of sucked? At the turn of the millennium, Tom Cruise and John Woo answered the question no one asked, and for some reason, we all really loved it at the time.
Directed by John Woo
Written by Robert Towne, Ronald D. Moore, and Brannon Braga
With Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Thandie Newton (Nyah Nordoff-Hall), Anthony Hopkins (Mission Commander Swanbeck), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Dougray Scott (Sean Ambrose), Richard Roxburgh (Hugh Stamp), and Brendan Gleeson (John C. McCloy)
Spoiler alert: high
Give Tom Cruise this: he doesn't hold a grudge.
As the tale goes, Cruise and Brian De Palma clashed frequently in their collaboration on Mission: Impossible, with the neophyte producer—who was also on set every day—constantly pushing De Palma with fits of pique that, while never really impacting the director's vision, were nonetheless the exact kind of uselessness you might expect from a perfectionist who'd never actually made his own movie. Things came to a head. Some say they nearly came to blows—and I love you, Brian, but my money is on the muscular fellow. Cruise kept demanding more takes while shooting the NOC list heist; De Palma kept assuring him he had everything he could ever need. Finally, De Palma cried out, "I'm the fucking director! And I said we're done with this scene!" (Co-producer Paula Wagner mediated a compromise, but the upshot was, no, they weren't done yet.) De Palma came to so despise Cruise that when post-production was over, he left and never came back, even excusing himself from M:I's publicity campaign.
But Cruise saw the results: the third highest gross of 1996—much of which went directly into his own pocket, naturally!—and also, perhaps, the most artistically successful film he'd yet been involved in. (And did working with BDP send Cruise on his great voyage of acting self-discovery with Kubrick, Anderson, Crowe, and Mann? If you know him, ask.) In any event, when the time came—after Eyes Wide Shut, after Magnolia—to return to the limelight of arch-populist entertainment, Cruise reached out to De Palma. As far as I can tell, De Palma didn't even return his calls.
"But... but... I'm me!"
So Cruise came instead to the itinerant king of Hong Kong action, John Woo, not realizing that Woo's feet of clay had started to crack the minute he got off the plane at LAX, nor that his collaboration with Woo would be the director's last great turn on this side of the planet.
Oh, I see that look—if you promise not to misunderstand me, I promise I won't be coy. These days, it is known that Mission: Impossible 2 isn't very good. Who can say what blinded us then? Was it Cruise's mullet? Something did, because it wasn't till a half-billion dollars in worldwide box office later that America woke up, realized nobody liked 2003's Paycheck either, and finally sent Woo home
Which is a pity, since M:I 2 is—well, I'm not about to call it an "aberration." But despite being the most financially successful film Woo ever directed, it also must be the worst effort of his Hollywood sojourn, maybe his whole globe-spanning career, while his other American efforts were strong. I'm not ashamed to say that I have fondness for Face/Off, possess the kind of abiding love for Broken Arrow you just don't see every day, don't even hate Windtalkers, and, Goddamnit, I do like Paycheck, thank you very much. Nonetheless, like every right-thinking person, I don't like M:I 2.
Yet while its faults are absolutely patent and largely unforgivable, they also don't have that much to do with the direction. It is a John Woo film—dear God, is it ever that!—but you know exactly what you're walking into with those, and if you aren't a fan of crypto-comedic action setpieces, counterproductively ludicrous romantic gestures, pathologically spastic editing, belabored slow-motion, and whole aviaries worth of those fucking doves, you have no business watching them in the first place. M:I 2 is Woo at his Wooiest, which is how it came to be charged with the sin of self-parody—and there's too much truth behind those accusations to call them slander—but these are features, not flaws. Indeed, nearly everything there is to enjoy about M:I 2 derives from Woo the gonzo action stylist. The rest comes from Cruise the death-defying vanity stuntman. And almost nothing comes from the script.
Get him! The producer's trying to escape the movie!
We open with the most iconic Cruise vanity stunt of them all: taking up Captain Kirk's T-shirt-based challenge to go climb a rock. Danger bleeds from the frame as Ethan Hunt works his way up the sheer cliff face for no other reason but to impress us with Cruise's willingness to destroy his shoulder for our entertainment. It's frankly awesome, and I wouldn't have it any other way. But this will be a long week if I stopped every time Cruise did something cool, so let's really get into it:
Ethan is recalled by the IMF and sent to Spain to locate, sexually antagonize, and bring into the fold Nyah Nordoff-Hall, master thief. In the process, though, he might just have fallen in love. This is not best spy practice, for reasons that shall soon become obvious.
We've already met Ethan's enemy, Sean Ambrose—yet another IMF agent turned rogue. Meddling in matters he barely understands, Ambrose has engaged in a subterfuge that hits Ethan particularly close to home: having masqueraded as Ethan by way of the IMF's patented masks, Ambrose gained the trust of pharmaceutical whistleblower Dr. Nekhorvich, a dual-specialist in mad science and rambling presentations. Having forthwithly disposed of the good doctor, Ambrose has also stolen his package, "Bellerophon," believing it to be valuable. And it is very valuable, but only in the presence of its counterpart, "Chimera," for Bellerphon is Chimera's cure—the "hero," should we listen to Nekhorvich's overheated narration, to Chimera's influenza-derived "villain."
It's what we in the biz call "symbolism."
You might imagine, then, that the IMF needs Nyah for her rarefied skills at cat burglary; but you imagine that because you also imagine that women are people, and M:I 2 isn't half so sure about that. Instead, Nyah's role in this intrigue is to serve as the center of a classic honeypot sting—for Nyah is Ambrose's lost love, no matter how incredibly unlikely it seems that she might've been able to stand him for a minute. (It is likewise not for you, viewer, to question why the army isn't invited to just shoot Ambrose and his 12 Monkeys to death as soon as they're found.)
Nyah quickly infiltrates Ambrose's gang, despite Ambrose's suspicion, bordering on certainty, that she's the IMF's spy. As Ambrose explains to his rather put-upon henchman Stamp, he's in it simply "to get [his] gun off"—presumably because humping the couch would have left him with too much dignity. Meanwhile, Ethan and his team (Luther Stickell again, plus some annoying Australian) try to heist Chimera before Ambrose can get to it. Unfortunately, the two spies are forced to split the difference when Nyah heroically injects herself with the virus, holding off Ambrose's vengefulness (while Ethan pointedly fails to rescue her).
Ambrose, now holding both Bellerophon and Chimera, commits to the final phase of his plan, colluding with Big Pharm magnate John McCloy to unleash the disease so they can get rich selling the cure. To this end, Ambrose dumps Nyah in a populated area, leaving her completely unattended so she can go jump off a mountain, dying alone and without infecting anyone. Well, bad plan or not, Ambrose is a lot more committed to buffoonish supervillainy than he ever was to making money, and it's all up to Ethan to put a stop to his evil counterpart's scheme the only way John Woo knows how:
The story is credited to two familiar names, Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga. To be insultingly reductive, these were the men behind Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Voyager, respectively. The foundation of M:I 2 isn't quite as wholly broken as their pedigree would suggest. Which isn't to suggest that the problems are not bone-deep: other than Spain, which offers little that would properly count as action, the plot of M:I 2 occurs exclusively in Sydney, Australia—mostly in Ambrose's house—not exactly the exotic spy-thriller setting you'd choose off the top of your head. Making matters worse is a noticeable deficit of action in a very saggy midsection. M:I 2 offers its climax as a remedy: a truly off-the-wall motorcycle chase/kung fu battle—that unfortunately still feels a touch small for this franchise, even after Woo got ahold of it and turned it into a sequence possibly even more laugh-out-loud cartoonish than the original's own Chunnel finale.
The first M:I, of course, had no surfeit of action—and, in fact, was probably better for its absence. But it was driven by that relentless De Palmian spirit. It's deceptively easy to say that Woo, though not without his own thrillmaking instincts, was never the right man for this script—and, given exactly where Moore and Braga were drawing their inspiration from, they must have thought De Palma was coming back after all.
Infamously, M:I 2 is so close to an uncredited remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious that, bioterror plot aside, it flirts with plagiarism even more shamelessly than BDP's own Hitchcockian indulgences. But, remember: Notorious is also a damned fine movie. And Woo's impulses toward romance aren't completely alien to the basic concept—the Spanish courtship between Ethan and Nyah is, arguably, the single most enjoyable part of the film that doesn't involve motorcycles crashing into each other—so I'm happy to counter that Woo's involvement was never the end of M:I 2 as a good movie, not even as an homage to Hitchcock's nuanced thriller.
Instead, we can lay that squarely at the feet of Robert "but I wrote Chinatown" Towne, who layered his script atop Moore and Braga's scenario. Towne remains the only writer to have successfully spanned two Impossible films, having jointly written the first with David Koepp—and thus, against all odds, we are compelled to believe that everything good about M:I really should be credited to the latter. For this screenplay is fucking terrible, rendering the anti-miracle of coming 65 years later, and making a movie based on Notorious that is even more misogynistic than Notorious.
Bereft of any Hays Code restraint or even a basic regard for its leading lady, M:I 2 is simply demonstrably much worse than Notorious—happy to have its villain completely undermine his own villainy just for the sake of getting laid, and equally happy to have him engage in name-calling at the level of a middle-school boy. Compounding things is Dougray Scott, objectively awful in the role, his sole value being the bile with which he makes fun of Ethan Hunt (and, rather directly, Tom Cruise)—justified bile, since the character is only tolerable when he's wearing an Ethan Hunt mask and therefore has Tom Cruise playing him. (At this point, Notorious comparisons tend to break down, when you recall Hitchcock's villain was played with uncommon sensitivity by one history's greatest actors.)
Not even close to pictured: Claude Rains.
It'd already be excruciatingly lazy villain-writing, but it comes without even so much as a fig leaf of gentility from its good guys, too. At their worst they're cruel and ugly. Even at their best—Ethan himself—they scream at Nyah for doing the only thing in the entire film that could be considered clever. Meanwhile, Towne himself can't respect Nyah enough to let her exult in denying Ambrose both his prize and her body in one stroke. Ethan's line to Nyah after she injects herself—"What were you thinking?"—and Nyah's response—"I wasn't thinking!"—marks the line between the genuinely good M:I 2 that doesn't exist and the often-unpleasant one that does, ruining the opera of Cruise and Thandie Newton's performances, ruining Woo's wonderfully overwrought direction of the scene, even ruining Hans Zimmers' score, in the single moment where it adds to the action on the screen rather than drowning it in outrageous insipidity.
M:I 2 has its compensations—it's never truly boring, and the self-aware fun Woo has with his own style is frankly enjoyable as hell, no matter how laughably obvious it is that the editing (and trampolines) are bearing the brunt of Tom Cruise's martial arts pretensions—but M:I 2 remains the franchise's worst entry, not to mention one of my lifetime's most baffling megahits. Yet, while it is the worst, that doesn't make it the least interesting. And there's something to be said for a failure that's still interesting enough to revisit, fifteen years down the line.
Other reviews in this series:
Mission: Impossible 3
Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol
Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation