Mission: Impossible II (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For those who didn't get enough of James Bond late last year when The World Is Not Enough blazed its way into theaters, Mission: Impossible II offers a chance to once again get shaken and stirred. Oh, the film isn't an official entry into the durable British spy's cannon, but anyone who can't recognize the 007 formula when they see it hasn't been paying attention. With few changes (an actor here, a name there), Mission: Impossible II could easy double as Bond 20. And, for those who have trouble envisioning Tom Cruise as a top-of-the-line action hero (the original Mission: Impossible left many doubting Thomases, including me), this movie should erase lingering uncertainties.

Chef Emeril Legasse is known for "kicking up" his food concoctions by adding a liberal dash of hot spices. Working from Robert Towne's pedestrian screenplay for Mission: Impossible II, that's what director John Woo (Face/Off) has done with this cinematic entrée. The movie illustrates the kind of impact a stylish filmmaker can have on a project. In other hands, Mission: Impossible II might have been a run-of-the-mill action movie, but, emblazoned with Woo's trademark flourishes, the motion picture has been transformed into a high-energy, adrenaline-and-testosterone boosted ride. This is most definitely "a John Woo film."

One of the biggest criticisms leveled against Brian DePalma's 1996 blockbuster was that it was too convoluted. Issues related to audience confusion have been rectified in this installment, which employs a straightforward plot and includes significant exposition to make sure that everyone is up to speed. In fact, a good portion of the first seventy minutes is devoted to background, setup, and getting the characters in place for the action-packed final three-quarters of an hour. With the exception of the pre-credits sequence and a playful car chase, there's not much during Mission: Impossible II's first hour to raise the pulse rate.

The story concerns the quest of an ex-secret agent, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), to obtain samples of both the killer virus Chimera and its antidote from the scientist who created them for Biocyte Pharmaceuticals in Sydney, Australia. Once he has the virus, Ambrose plans to unleash it in the streets of Sydney and get rich as his stock options in Biocyte skyrocket, since the drug company will be the only one producing the antidote. Of course, the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) cannot allow this to happen, so their leader, M... err, make that Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins), calls on his top agent, Ethan Hunt (Cruise), interrupting his mountain climbing vacation.

Swanbeck sends Hunt to recruit Ambrose's old girlfriend, Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton), to spy for the IMF. On this mission, Hunt brings along an old buddy, Luther (Ving Rhames), and a new Aussie cohort (John Polson). Complications occur when Hunt unexpectedly falls - and falls hard - for Nyah, and his feelings are returned. Suddenly, saving her life becomes as important as saving the world, and, since we're deep in 007 territory for most of the movie, there's little question that both likelihoods will arise.

Woo is in fine form, employing every weapon in his considerable arsenal: slow motion shots, billowing clothing (scarves, loose jackets, the dresses on flamenco dancers), pigeons taking flight, lots of martial arts/WWF moves, and a fluid but constantly-moving camera. The soundtrack, which features a relentless Hans Zimmer score liberally sprinkled with a souped-up version of the "Mission: Impossible" theme, hammers the viewer's ears (mine were actually a little cottony when I left the theater). As always, Woo choreographs his action scenes like ballet. The final chase/fight sequence, which features motorcycles zig-zagging through traffic and ends with a lengthy hand-to-hand duel in which both participants display superhuman stamina, is edge-of-the-seat material. It may sound clichéd and familiar, but Woo elevates it to another level.

With the exception of Pierce Brosnan, no one in this kind of movie is more cool than Cruise. Dressed all in black with impenetrable sunglasses and a leather jacket trailing behind him as he approaches the camera, he is the epitome of The Cool Hero. Woo has taken the unpromising Ethan Hunt of the first film and transformed him into the kind of character that a motion picture series can be built around. As an actor, Cruise is obviously seeking to expand his horizons. His last three roles have included a subdued turn for Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), a brilliant supporting role in Magnolia, and this part, where he performed almost all of his own stunt work (including the rock climbing).

Of course, there are credibility issues and plot holes, a few of which are rather obvious, but the relative simplicity of the storyline allows things to hang together reasonably well - certainly better than in the first film. The supporting cast is also less crowded. The gorgeous Thandie Newton is a better choice for the part of the love interest than the equally attractive Emmanuelle Beart. Newton meshes with Cruise more effectively than Beart did; their scenes not only generate a little erotic heat, but a surprising helping of sweetness. Anthony Hopkins has what amounts to a cameo as the new head of the IMF. Dougray Scott is the designated bad guy; he digs his teeth into the role with a relish that will dispel images of his previous best-known part (that of Prince Charming to Drew Barrymore's Cinderella in Ever After). Ving Rhames becomes the only player other than Cruise to return for a second tour of duty.

The summer movie season of 2000 still has a lot of miles to go, but it's doubtful that anything queued for release will exhibit the sheer visceral impact of Mission: Impossible II. Woo is a virtuoso in this genre, and his results, despite coming in behind schedule and over budget, are impressive. This is not the best big-budget motion picture to grace multiplex screens this month (Gladiator is a more impressive overall motion picture), but it's precisely the kind of experience that people expect from a "Summer Movie." Mission: Impossible II is an exciting assault on the senses that doesn't tax the brain. If Cruise is willing, there will likely be another sequel. And someone at MGM should look seriously at hiring Woo to helm the next James Bond movie. Imagine what this director could do for that franchise.

Mission: Impossible II (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 2000-04-24
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1