|Mission - Impossible II|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 07 November 2000|
All those who thought the first "Mission: Impossible" feature film had good effects but a boring, incomprehensible plot populated by non-characters, raise your hands. Okay, you can put your hands down now, along with any preconceived notions about the quality of "Mission: Impossible 2." This is a rare situation in which the original was an interminable muddle (albeit with good stunts), but the sequel actually rocks on its own terms.
Moreover, it should be said upfront that "M:I-2" is an exceptionally well-designed DVD. The supplemental section blessedly provides exact running times on each and every item when it is selected, so that the viewer can decide if there’s time to check out the 14-minute "Behind the Mission" making-of, or if there’s a rush on, to explore the five-minute "Mission Incredible" stunts bonus. Sensibly, when the audio commentary with director John Woo is selected, the movie starts on its own – for once, the viewer is not required to return to the main menu and then press "Play" (granted, a very mild inconvenience, but selecting the commentary implies that listening to it is the next desired step).
Even without the screen credit, it’s easy to tell that "M:I-2" is directed by Woo. The action has his trademarks all over it, including flying kicks, mid-air collisions and a hero and villain who are one another’s doppelgangers. This isn’t to say that Woo necessarily shaped the scenario – the script is credited to Robert Towne, from a story by Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga – but it certainly has elements that he finds attractive. Perhaps it’s simply a coincidence that "M:I-2" plays like the spiritual heir to Woo’s previous feature "Face/Off." After all, the "Mission: Impossible" TV series played around with the notion of switching faces (via perfect masks and voice strips) way back in the ‘60s. The first film failed to make significant use of this "M:I" signature technique, an omission rectified here.
Tom Cruise is back as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, who is recalled from vacation by his superior (an uncredited Anthony Hopkins) and sent on the trail of rogue former colleague Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott). Ambrose has already posed as Hunt (in the first but not last use of the face mask) to kill a research scientist and is up to something potentially very nasty and lucrative with a bio-engineered supervirus. Hunt’s primary tool in stopping Ambrose is the baddie’s ex-girlfriend, master thief Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton). Ambrose desperately wants the lady back. Problem 1: Hunt has already bedded Hall and is smitten himself. Problems 2-100: well, they don’t call Hunt’s job "Mission: Impossible" for nothing.
Fans of Woo action won’t be disappointed. Feet, bodies, motorcycles and other vehicles go soaring in chase and in combat at regular intervals. According to every bit of supplemental material on the disk, Cruise does an unusually high number of his own stunts, including a breathtaking cliff climb in Chapter 2.
Sound is extremely good, not just in the big effects like plentiful explosions and gunfire, but also in subtler combinations, like the juxtaposition of castanet-heavy flamenco music with car engines revving around curves in Chapter 4. Chapter 7 has an artful blend of dialogue in a solid center channel, theme music throbbing low but distinctively in the mains and subdued but appropriate and realistic ambient crowd sounds at a racetrack. Chapter 10 gives us the ominous whoosh of a viral injection gun discharging, followed by some strong directional jolts of glass shattering and bullets striking. Chapter 11 has a particularly dimensional explosion, although oddly the 5.1 sound mix here does not seem overly concerned with directional effects – perhaps the most noticeable exception is a jolting bullet strike in the left rear in Chapter 14. Video quality is simply gorgeous, with vivid, luminous colors that never bleed.
The supplemental material plays throughout the 5.1 system. Metallica’s music video, which drops the band in the cliff-climb location (Australia in the story, Moab, Utah in real life), slams with satisfying grit in all speakers. Woo’s commentary is in the center channel, with the rest of the soundtrack low in the mains and rears when he’s talking, rising when he pauses. It’s easy to maneuver around the various making-of options, and it’s especially pleasing to see that the 34-plus-minutes total "Impossible Shots" section is broken down into 11 bite-sized bits (although one might wish for just a bit more precise how-it-was-done info instead of quite so much rhapsodizing about Cruise’s athletic abilities).
The really good news here, though, is that there’s an actual movie, with strong plot, decent characters and clever dialogue, to go with all the blow-ups, shoot-outs and fistfights. Writer Towne has retained his chops, providing smart banter and some unexpected emotional peaks. Cruise makes Hunt confident without seeming smug, dependably resilient without being invulnerable. He’s also unusually sexy when courting Newton’s Hall. Newton, in turn, exudes sensuality, class and intelligence – no wonder all the spies are gaga for her. Scott is truly a worthy adversary for Cruise, endowing the dangerous Ambrose with charisma, dark wit and profound romantic longing.
While nobody would deny that "Mission: Impossible 2" is an action thriller, it also has a story and people who hold our attention. This shouldn’t be an impossible mission for filmmakers, but it’s achieved far less often than we might like. Cheers to this team for accomplishing it here.