May 24, 2000 | Buffer, bolder, and readier than ever to kick ass, cheat death and do prodigious derring-do, the new-and-improved Tom Cruise cuts the mustard as a high-testosterone action figure in Mission: Impossible 2, the second installment in what promises to be a franchise in the James Bondian mold.
In the previous Mission: Impossible misadventure, a lavishly produced but only fitfully exciting spin-off from the long-running TV series, Cruise came across as more of a callow 007 wanna-be – at best, maybe a 004 ¾ -- than a fully-fledged, licensed-to-thrill superspy. But just as the enduringly boyish megastar has finally grown into his good looks – even that prominent nose seems less of a honker these days – Cruise appears slightly more at ease, and a lot more in charge, in M:I-2 as Ethan Hunt, the most valuable player in the Impossible Missions Force, a shadowy secret agency with a distressingly high turnover rate.
Maybe he’s been studying the Sean Connery Workout Tape, or just practicing smooth moves (and karate kicks) in front of the mirror. Whatever the reason, Cruise careens through the sequel with dash and panache, which helps a lot during the extended warm-up to the pyrotechnical fun and games.
The movie itself is a wildly uneven mix of straight-arrow, by-the-numbers caper stuff and dizzyingly kinetic, exuberantly stylized motion and emotion. The first hour plays like a rehash of Entrapment and a dozen other thrillers of recent vintage, with Cruise called back from a mountain-climbing vacation to check into the nasty machinations of an IMF turncoat.
(Wait a minute: Another IMF traitor? Is it just my impression, or is this organization little too lax in the background-checking of recruits?)
Rogue agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott of Ever After) has stolen the antidote for a man-made virus perfected by the scientists of an Australian bio-tech firm. In order to unleash the virus itself, however, Ambrose and his cronies need to break into the bio-tech firm’s impregnable vault.
The good news: Ethan Hawke gets there first, and destroys nearly all of the vials containing the deadly mutant bug. The bad news: Ambrose shows up with a bunch of heavily-armed flunkies – and, more important, Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton), a beautiful thief recruited by Ethan to keep an eye (among other things) on the bad guy.
It takes nearly half the movie to get the principals to the point where they’re crossing paths inside the vault. During this extended warm-up, Ethan and Nyah meet cute and fall in love – the foreplay involves a flamenco performance, an attempted jewelry heist and a slam-bang auto chase along a Spanish mountainside – which, of course, makes it more than a little awkward for our hero to ask his leading lady to reacquaint herself with Ambrose, her ex-lover. But orders are orders, especially when they’re ordered so authoritatively by the IMF boss fleetingly played by an unbilled Anthony Hopkins.
Action master John Woo (Face/Off, Broken Arrow) is billed as director of M:I-2, but you’d be hard-pressed to spot many signs of his signature style during the first 60 or so minutes. Once the serious shooting starts, however, the movie shakes and shimmies, then roars to life with a sonic blast of true-Woo excitement. The blizzards of shattered glass, the operatic outbursts of passion, the awesomely incongruous appearance of doves, the surreal slo-mo punctuations of balletic grace under fire – all the trademark Woo touches are there, along with eye-popping, jaw-dropping new tricks.
You know that bit in the trailer where Cruise and Scott appear to be jousting on motorcycles? Well, the movie makes good on the promise of that tease, then keeps on keeping on once the antagonists go mano a mano on a beach against a backdrop of thunderously crashing waves. The intensity level swerves into the danger zone, and the battle between good guy and bad guy ratchets up to the level of Armageddon.
M:I-2 is the first turbo-charged rollercoaster ride of Summer 2000, and if you’re patient enough to wait for it to reach full speed, you’ll have a breathlessly wild ride. But wait, there’s more: Woo plays for keeps even while he’s racing past the plot holes in Robert Towne’s slapdash script, and treats the material far more seriously than you have any right to expect. For example: The relationship between Ethan and Nyah is immeasurably more compelling than your standard-issue action-movie dalliance, thanks to Woo’s dead-serious hard-sell of the relationship, and Thandie Newton’s radiant screen presence in a star-making role. Indeed, the romantic subplot often recalls the kinky love-hate bond between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, only the most obvious of the many movies Woo respectfully references throughout M:I-2
Ving Rhames, the only other returnee from the first Mission: Impossible, once again swipes every scene that isn’t nailed to the floor as computer whiz Luther Stickell. (Watch him get medieval on the guy who shoots a hole through his favorite jacket.) As for the villain of the piece – well, Dougray Scott is a tad too generic as an evil mastermind. But he does have a few amusing moments in a sequence that calls for Ambrose to accurately predict Ethan’s every move during the break-in at the bio-tech firm. And you have to be at least a little impressed by any villain who demands stock options, not mere millions, as pay-off for his evil doings.