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Dave's Other Movie Log

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Mission: Impossible II***

Everything that needs to be said about this movie can be rolled up into one neat sentence. Mission: Impossible II gives viewers just what they paid to see: a solid thriller, adroitly choreographed by John Woo, with a dashing performance by Tom Cruise. Not that I think anyone would go to the film expecting to see Pedro Almodóvar's All about My Mother, but M:I-2 delivers on its promise of providing high adrenaline Schadenfreude from the first moment on. After an expository sequence in which an elderly scientist flees by air from Sydney to Atlanta carrying a mysterious briefcase, leading up to a plane crash after the flight is skyjacked, the main titles unroll over shots of the indefatigable Mr. Cruise rock climbing on some dizzying peaks in Australia, giving back its literal meaning to the phrase "cliffhanger." From there on out, the film is a roller coaster that doesn't slow down or hardly gives the audience a chance to catch their breath until the final fade-out. 

The first thing worth noting is that M:I-2 is such an improvement over its predecessor that the question is not even worth talking about. Brian De Palma apparently never has recovered from the fiasco of Blow Out (1981), and Mission: Impossible I like all of his later movies seemed to me to be the work of a sleepwalker. About all I recall from that movie is an amusing sequence in a car in which Tom Cruise regarded Vanessa Redgrave with the hopelessly infatuated gaze of a moonstruck adolescent. But the new Mission, in which Nyah Nordhoff Hall (Thandie Newton), the ally and sometime lover of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), injects herself with a deadly virus in order to thwart the schemes of the villainous Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), adds some emotional thickening totally lacking in the earlier production to the basic Mission Impossible recipe. According to David Poland in The Hot Button, who had seen a version of the film before the final cut, some last minute work was done to tighten up M:I-2 editorially, but as released the film is well-paced for its 125 minute running time. The competent cinematography is by Jeffrey L. Kimball, and the well-tooled screenplay by Robert Towne, based upon a story by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, based in turn upon the television series created by Bruce Geller.

John Woo has obviously made a highly successful transition from Hong Kong to Hollywood, benefiting from the juicer budgets and enlarged special effects armamentarium of the American industry. I wasn't too impressed by Broken Arrow, which struck me as a fireworks display that peaked too quickly, only leaving the stench of powder in the air. Woo, who has an estimable ability for turning violent confrontations--like the one between Ethan and his foes in the Biocyte building--into balletic as well as ballistic images, as if he were a George Balanchine of the action genre, has learned in the meantime how to effectively marshal his forces rather than throwing them into battle in the first reels. Nor did it hurt that in his previous film Face/Off and in this picture he was working with quite dramatically arresting scripts in contrast to the facile plot mechanics of Broken Arrow

Moreover, he has found a perfect star in Tom Cruise. No one would call Cruise a wimp, but neither could he be characterized as beefy, and M:I-2 employs to great effect the contrast between his lean and mean appearance--that appearance and his symbolically charged cognomen made me think of James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumpo with an attitude--and feats of athletic bravado worthy of a Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.  Doubtless, Cruise made the film to satisfy fans who couldn't imagine what he was doing lost in the labyrinths of Eyes Wide Shut or Magnolia; however, by adding traces of his roles in those pictures to his portrayal of Ethan, instead of simply making a 180° shift back to his earlier Mission Impossible performance, he has skillfully given greater depth to the characterization.  At some moments, the reassuring visage of the latter shows up refracted, as it were, through the far from reassuring images of characters like Dr. Bill Harford, Frank T.J. Mackey, or even Lestat from Interview with the Vampire. Cruise/Hunt is abetted by Ving Rhames as his sidekick and computer whiz Luther Stickell in an entertaining supporting part, but Bringing Out the Dead afforded Rhames a far better opportunity to demonstrate his talents as an actor than does M:I-2.

Not that M:I-2 is above criticism. For anyone who is not an aficionado of the genre, Woo's delight in drawing out the finale as long as possible may get tiring before the movie comes to an end.  A far more serious shortcoming has to do with the characterization of the heroine, who does not fare as well as the hero in this regard. Thandie Newton is a very attractive young woman who acts well enough. But although it is hardly surprising that M:I-2 employs her mainly as a foil for Cruise, the contours of her role are far too soft to be very interesting in and of themselves. Newton is credible as a professional thief, but the movie never hints at how she ended up in that profession--except for possibly wanting to indulge in the lifestyles of the rich and famous--and only rarely does it succeed in conveying the stress she must experience when she has to emotionally and amorously shift gears and jump from Ethan Hunter's bed into that of Sean Ambrose. 

Apparently taking the film's oft-repeated slogan "What every hero needs is a villain" very much to heart, Towne and Woo have given more dramatic relief to the ingeniously sadistic Sean and his colorfully depraved band of henchmen--especially his second in command, Hugh Stamp, well played by Richard Roxburgh, who seems more taken with Sean's malignant charms than does Sean's own mistress--than they have bothered to bestow upon their putative femme fatale. While a more skilled actress might have been able to offset this imbalance by adding the definition the part begs for, Newton is blandly beautiful without ever suggesting the sharpness and dramatic complexity of Eva Marie Saint in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest or Madeleine Carroll in Lewis Milestone's The General Died at Dawn (1936). I do not question Tom Cruise's right to his place in M:I-2's sun, but I think it would have been a far more satisfying work if the pairing of Cruise and Newton had had something of the more volatile chemistry of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight.

Stephen Farber, in an article that appeared last week in The Los Angeles Times Calendar, entitled "Mission: Familiar," which I have discussed elsewhere, accused M:I-2 of having lifted its basic plot premise from Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious--an accusation which Robert Towne denied in a well-argued  Counterpunch piece in the same paper that appeared on 6/5/00. I did not think much of the charge of plagiarism when I read Farber's article, and I think even less of it after having seen the movie. What is true is that M:I-2 literally repeats some of the dialogue from Notorious when Hunt's boss gives the spy his assignment and informs him that Sarah has had an affair with Sean in the past. But this is quite evidently an allusion to a famous old movie for cognoscenti, not an example of plagiarism. Moreover, the effect of the allusion is to inject a tone of ironic melancholy into the movie, looking back at a time when there were still Great Causes worth fighting and dying for. After all, Notorious, like Michael Curtiz' Casablanca, is as much an anti-fascist vehicle as it is a love story.

However, in M:I-2, the antagonist is not a Nazi gang attempting to bring the Third Reich back to life, but a biotech tycoon who hopes to become a billionaire many times over by possessing the only cure for a terrible plague which he has himself helped produce--a scheme that would have in all likelihood made the fascist industrialists and Gestapo agents in Notorious green with envy. (No doubt there is some narrative hyperbole at work here in M:I-2, but considering the efforts currently being expended by huge insurance companies in Europe to avoid paying the claims of Holocaust survivors, I don't find the idea  too far-fetched.) In other words, this is a world in which everything reduces to profit and loss--and ideology be damned. Yet this world is less post-ideological than it might seem at first glance. In M:I-2 old ideologies of national identity, of religious  or political beliefs, have given way to ideology in its pure form: as the unvarnished struggle for survival. In the memorable words of Theodor Adorno in Negative Dialectic, "if the lion could have a false consciousness, his rage at the antelope he wants to eat would be ideology."

True, this view of how things are--rather than how they might be--will strike some observers as coldly cynical, but it hardly lacks a historical basis in fact. The Far East became a center for Cold War conflict almost immediately after the end of World War II, and Woo, growing up in Hong Kong, must have had a far more disillusioned view of the rivalry between superpowers than did most Americans growing up in this country in the same period. Although some of this disillusionment found explicit statement in the Hong King production Heroes Shed No Tears (1986), it more often shows up implicitly, in the dramatic conflict between two equally matched male antagonists which dominates the scenarios of many of Woo's movies just as did the rivalry between East and West in the 1950's. Such a conflict might be metaphorically compared to a duel between two scorpions--to cite a figure commonly used to describe the arms race in the heyday of the Cold War--and Woo has made the figure tangible in more than one of his films with a shot of the two adversaries with arms interlaced and revolvers pointed at each other's head. The figure not only suggests the immanent risk of mutual destruction in the age of nuclear warfare but also the blurring of identities in a world of Realpolitik where allies and foes change places without warning, a theme Woo treated brilliantly in Face/Off with the vertiginous exchange of physical identities between Sean Archer and Castor Troy, although variations on the theme run like a thread through most of his films, and crop up here in the form of the lifelike masks effectively used by both Ethan and Sean for purposes of deception throughout the action. 

No one would mistake Woo for a "realistic" director--he is a highly talented entertainer with certain twinges of conscience that he doesn't let get in the way of carrying out his business for long. Nevertheless, who could refuse to see the accuracy of some of the reflections he captures in the distorting mirror of the action genre? Who could be so rash as to say all this is only mere invention?  At the very least, M:I-2's most salient qualities, speed and noise, make it a far more accurate document of contemporary life in advanced industrialized countries--which is louder and faster than anything in the previously recorded history of the human race--than most films that consciously strive to be "realistic." If the world Woo depicts is a "soulless" one, as Farber maintains, perhaps we should look within our own consciences for an answer instead of pointing an accusing finger at the director.

Frequency   Liliom  Boys Don't Cry   Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai  The Green Mile  Erin Brockovich  The Beach  U-571  Gladiator

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