I had the poster. I participated in a chatroom Q&A with John Woo via AOL. I saw the movie twice in theatres. I bought the DVD. I even downloaded the Limp Bizkit version of the theme song.So why the hell was I dreading revisiting John Woo’s “Mission: Impossible 2”? I seemed to like it just fine when I was 17. And I feel that I would very much enjoy rewatching the films that sandwiched it in its trilogy. The first one, smartly directed by Brian DePalma, is one that I have oft declared my favorite action film of the 90s. (I can take a step back and realize that it’s more of an espionage movie, so maybe I can give the “favorite action film of the 90s” label to “True Lies.” And the third one, by J.J. Abrams, gets past some of its television-like structural issues via some incredible and precise spy sequences and a bizarre turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the pathetic and demented villain.But in the middle of this sandwich is a John Woo masturbation-fest. I knew that in 2000, and I was okay with it, but I approached “M:I-2” again knowing that I now have less tolerance for useless nonsense. And the last time I put on the DVD at a party, we basically fast-forwarded through much of the plot in the middle, only hitting play at the beginning of the Biocyte building attack sequence and letting it play through the end.
But that was then, and this is now. Was I really afraid that I was going to see through its inanity and truly dislike the film?
And now the question:
Is It Better Or Worse Than I Remember?
Surprisingly, it’s better. And just a little bit worse. I’ll break it down for you below:
What’s Better About The Film?
I don’t think I ever realized it before, because compared to the wildly complicated and almost infuriatingly labyrinthine plot of DePalma’s “Mission: Impossible” it seems like nothing is happening in “M:I-2,” but the plot here is actually pretty top-notch. I have very little knowledge of which of the three screenwriters wrote what, but I know these things to be true:
1. The central Thandie Newton character and her story are based ever-so-slightly on Hitchcock’s “Notorious.” However, I still have yet to see that film, so I can’t really tell you how accurate that is.
2. Robert Towne (who wrote the first film, as well as, you know, CHINATOWN) allegedly wrote much of the plot around planned action sequences demanded by Woo.
3. Ronald D. Moore is co-credited with the story. You may also know him as a writer for “Star Trek: Voyager,” one of the men behind the seventh and eighth films in that franchise, and the man responsible for HBO’s “Carnivale” and Sci-Fi’s reboot of “Battlestar Galactica.”
So I don’t know who gets the credit, but what I once considered emotionally unsatisfying and intellectually sub-par now seems kind of fascinating. I still tend to not like plots that revolve around a man-made disease as a MacGuffin — I have no idea why, but they always seem lazy to me — but the Cruise/Newton/Scott love triangle holds some very honest beats and doesn’t slip into absurdity until the final 30 minutes. Being forced to throw your lover into the arms of an enemy to uncover a conspiracy that could potentially destroy the world? That’s not something one takes lightly, and while I still don’t think Tom Cruise is much of an actor per se, he does the intense longing thing quite well.
The best sequence? A quiet but exhilarating one at the racetrack, which handily balances the drama with the espionage, and turns a small detail (the envelope theft) into something nail-biting. I can’t imagine myself saying that ten years ago.
- Richard Roxburgh isn’t incredible or anything in this role as Dougray Scott’s right-hand man, but it still amazes me that this is the same man who played the sniveling Duke in 2001’s glorious “Moulin Rouge!” The two are so far separated that I can’t see the same actor playing both, so I have to give props where props are due. It’s too bad that he was one of the many whose career took a major hit with the release of Stephen Sommers’ “Van Helsing,” because I’d like to see him in more projects.
- Hans Zimmer’s score is propulsive, simple and fun. (Although it’s weird that, during the final sequences of the film, would reuse the talents of Lisa Gerrard, who he had just freakin’ used for his “Gladiator” score, which had come out only three weeks earlier.)
- Thandie Newton, who gets a bad wrap for some of her stranger film choices (“Norbit” comes to mind) is far better than I ever thought. Not to say that she’s incredible, but she is convincing both as a spy and as a woman lost in love. Her character arc works as she softens and learns, only to be forced to make a sacrifice for the good of the world. I suppose I could chalk much of this up to the aforementioned good script, but Thandie deserves her props, too.
- Scott plays a very interesting, unique kind of villain, one I can’t entirely explain. But I think he succeeds in humanizing somebody who is written to be despicable. Scott’s tearful intensity when he learns of Thandie’s betrayal is almost sympathetic. I can’t say that for the villains in either of the other two “Mission: Impossible” films.
What’s Worse About The Film?
John Woo. I think nearly everything that bothers me about “M:I-2” is the existence of John Woo. Once a groundbreaking action director in Asia, his American films have progressively become more and more obvious as simple paychecks to stuff his wallet, and this film wasn’t even close to the first of his to prove this. (Of his American films, I think we can all agree there is only one great one.) What works for his style does the exact opposite for the “Mission: Impossible” series. The unnecessary slow motion in sequences that would 100% benefit from speed, the doves, the gun battles (or, as everybody seems to call them, “bullet ballets”) takes away from much of the intrigue of the story. I get that Paramount and Woo wanted to do something different from the first “Mission: Impossible” film (much like Abrams did with the third, distancing himself from the second), but it did a great job in convincing me, for exactly ten years now, that this was one dumb fucking movie that was all style over substance. Now, I know better: it’s style suffocating substance. And while I can understand the use for such an idea, I still am morally opposed, as a writer, to demand that somebody writes scenes around already established action sequences. That’s just moronic for something that can work as a great spy movie. I don’t have a name who would have done a better job — I’d actually love to hear from you guys — but choosing John Woo did the film a disservice. There’s only so many times I can say “Cool” to a movie screen without feeling like an idiot.
According to IMDb, Oliver Stone was the first director onboard, and while I wouldn’t have suggested such a movie, it’s a treat to think about it.
- The two things I hated the first time around — 1.) the ridiculous over-reliance on the special IMF masks as a cheap plot device, and 2.) the 20-minute-long battling-motorcycles-and-martial-arts climax — still blow, but in a different way now. I look at “1.)” as something goofy and lazy, but understandable, but think “2.)” is just one gigantic waste of money and my time as a viewer.
- How the opening credit sequence is literally watching Tom Cruise climb rocks while listening to reggae, for five minutes straight.
- I like Hugh Jackman. I really do. But I feel bad that overshooting this film cost Dougray Scott his chance to play Wolverine in the first “X-Men” movie. It wasn’t that he missed the chance to audition or passed on it. He had the role, and then “M:I-2” went past its scheduled end date. Now Hugh Jackman is a highly sought-after (but not always 100% bankable) A-list actor, and the last thing I can remember Scott in was a thankless role in “Hitman,” plus a stint as one of the worst characters to ever be on “Desperate Housewives.”
What Did I Learn From This Experience?
My brain sometimes illogically prepares itself for disappointment, even when there’s no real reason to do so. It’s like a fail-safe mechanism to protect me from having to admit that I like a movie such as this, instead telling me that it’s more mature to call it out on its bullshit. Turns out, that bullshit is easily explained away by two words: John Fucking Woo.