This mission just got a hell of a lot more impossible…
Before I watched Mission: Impossible II, I was all prepared to write a scathing, smarmy, condescending review. Lambasting summer event movies, pining for the good old days of 1980s action flicks, putting it down as John Woo lite, dismissing it as merely a sequel.
Then I watched the movie. Damn.
There’s still that part of me that wants to pontificate about summer event movies, and I probably still will before this review is over. Mission: Impossible II isn’t particularly demanding of its audience, and I think that detracts from it a bit, but taken for what it is, it’s a lot of fun.
Back in the day, “Mission: Impossible” was a fun piece of 1960s spy-groove action television. Then Tom Cruise and his producing partners got a hold of it. Mission: Impossible updated the Impossible Mission Force to the 1990s with high-tech gadgets and Hollywood computer mumbo-jumbo. Along for the ride was an indecipherable plot so full of twists and double-crosses there was more holes than cheese…and I don’t seem to remember them stepping foot in Switzerland. (You can laugh now, or wait until it gets funny.) In spite of the messy plot, Mission: Impossible made dump trucks full of money at the box office. Naturally, a sequel was in order. Directing duties passed from copycat Brian De Palma to the often-copied Hong Kong action movie god, John Woo.
Much of Mission: Impossible II was shot in Australia, which led to lower shooting costs, but also a plethora of headaches. Shooting was delayed, there were problems with the crew and the local government, friction between director Woo and producer Cruise, actors were forced to drop previously scheduled projects…but in the end, the results on film are worth it.
Compared to Mission Impossible‘s labyrinthine plot, Mission: Impossible II is as simplistic as an episode of “Three’s Company.” That’s not to say that it isn’t chock-full of double-crosses and other unpredictabilities. Spy thrillers are supposed to remain unpredictable, so I’m only going to give you a description as brief as a back-of-the-box description.
Master spy and all-around nice guy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), fresh off of solving…whatever it was he solved in his previous movie…must stop master bad-ass and former IMF agent, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), from acquiring a deadly virus. The catch? Neither one knows (at first) exactly what they are after — only that a very deadly weapon can exchange hands and much money can be made from it. Caught between the two is Nyah (Thandie Newton), a master thief who is Sean’s former lover and Ethan’s current lover.
Like most action films of any era, that plot is just the clothesline upon which the pride and joy of the film — the action set pieces — are hung. It is rumored that screenwriter Robert Towne was informed prior to writing the script what the set pieces would be, and he had to write around them (and after watching the movie, I don’t doubt the claim). In a way, that’s such a shame. Towne was responsible for (or contributed to) the scripts for some of the most influential films of the last thirty-five years: Bonnie And Clyde, Chinatown (for which he won an Academy Award), Shampoo, Marathon Man, and Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan all came from his typewriter either as original scripts or rewrites. Sometime during the ’80s, it’s like he gave up. He spent the ’90s churning out scripts that belied his talent. Days Of Thunder? Love Affair? Script doctor work on Armageddon? Oh, how the mighty have fallen. But I digress.
Maybe the material isn’t up to the level at which Towne can write, but the action makes up for it, and then some. There are at least four major set pieces in the film. Two of them are well-executed version of things you can see in just about any action flick: an airliner hijacking and a car chase. With the exception of those amazing MagicStick face masks, the hijacking is rather uncreative, especially when compared to Air Force One or even Cliffhanger (I know, there goes Mike again with his Renny Harlin apologism…). The car chase makes nice use of close-ups and slow motion (What? Slow motion in a John Woo movie?), but is otherwise rather ordinary. The last two set pieces are pure John Woo…not namby-pamby Ivory Soap 99 44/100% pure — we’re talking balls-to-the-wall, mothers hide your children 100% pure. All his trademarks are there: the hero jumping sideways with guns blazing in both hands, slo-mo galore, reflections giving away the bad guys, and doves flying everywhere. The PG-13 rating may take the edge off the violence, but there’s still plenty to please his fans. One of the scenes is Ethan infiltrating a high-rise, while the other is an extended scene where Ethan recovers the antidote to the virus from the baddies. It has everything you could ask for — guns, explosions, car chases, and martial arts. Oh, and more slow motion.
It would be entirely pointless to discuss Tom Cruise’s acting in Mission: Impossible II. He’s Tom Cruise, plain and simple. It’s nothing you haven’t seen from him from just about every other movie he’s been in (with the exception of Interview With The Vampire). That’s not to say he isn’t good; personally, I think he is rather unappreciated as an actor because of the “pretty boy” image. The real grist for discussion is Dougray Scott and Thandie Newton, because your average filmgoer probably isn’t as familiar with them. Dougray Scott is Scottish, and hasn’t been seen in many movies on this side of the Atlantic. One of his first Hollywood roles was a bit part in Deep Impact. He gained recognition as the Prince Charming to Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella in Ever After. He was lined up to play mutant bad-ass Wolverine in The X-Men, but when shooting ran long on Mission: Impossible II the part went to Hugh Jackman (oh, and thank the Maker that it did!). Sean Ambrose is the sort of villain that will inevitably lead to Scott being typecast. He chews the scenery and boils with menace just under the surface. I bought him in the role, and I thought he brought weight that the bad guy in a movie like this needs. I am hoping that Mission: Impossible II will be the breakout movie for Thandie Newton. It’s not the first time she’s acted opposite Tom Cruise; she had a small role as a servant on Brad Pitt’s plantation in Interview With The Vampire. She has also appeared in James Ivory’s Jefferson In Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Besieged, and Jonathan Demme’s Beloved. In the paraphrased words of Ethan Hunt: “Damn, she’s beautiful.” Unfortunately, not much of asked of her other than looking beautiful, but she makes for a fetching damsel in distress.
As for the DVD itself, Paramount has finally grasped what most other studios have known for some time: DVD buyers like extras. The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The only thing that keeps it from being a perfect transfer is more dust on the negative than I’d expect from a big-budget studio film that’s only six months old. Likewise, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is close to perfect. It is aggressive, but not overly so; if you have friends or relatives that protest that movies are too loud, they probably won’t be overly annoyed by Mission: Impossible II. The entire sound field is used to provide an enveloping experience.
Paramount has released one or two decent special editions in the past — The General’s Daughter and Sleepy Hollow come to mind — but Mission: Impossible II far surpasses them. You get: a commentary track from John Woo, two behind-the-scenes featurettes, cast and crew interviews, a Metallica music video, a brief alternate title sequence, and a short aptly titled “Mission Improbable.” The featurettes give a nice view behind the scenes without seeming like promotional fluff. The Metallica video, “I Disappear,” is presented full-frame with Dolby Surround audio. I like Metallica, but I’m not a huge fan. The song is not nearly at the level of just about anything else they’ve ever done. It is the very definition of droning generic metal head-banging music. It’s rather disappointing. I would’ve much rather seen a video for Limp Bizkit’s TRL-friendly rendition of the classic “Mission: Impossible” theme…which I suppose will sound just as passé as Metallica in about five years. I didn’t notice any difference between the theatrical credits and the “alternate” title sequence. Maybe a few different pictures in the background, but there’s very little difference. “Mission Improbable,” on the other hand, is an extra worthy of special mention. It was produced for the 2000 MTV Movie Awards, and thanks to the wonders of corporate synergy, they were able to include it on the disc. It’s basically a one-joke skit — Ben Stiller as Tom Cruise’s stunt double — but the joke is funny so it works.
It’s time for that rant against “summer event movies.” Summer has always been the time when the studios have released crowd-pleasing popcorn movies. The race for big blockbusters probably started in 1975 with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and the pressure has been on ever since. It’s only been the last couple years that it has really started to bother me. It all started when I read an article in some entertainment magazine (Entertainment Weekly or Premiere, I can’t remember which) about the making of Armageddon. I think this was a few months before its release, so I hadn’t had the opportunity to be completely disappointed by it. The producers were talking about their story meetings, and their market research, and how they programmed the movie to be a blockbuster. They intentionally pitched it at the PG-13 rating level, leaving out profanity and violence that may have otherwise encroached on the script. Their goal was to have a movie in the top ten grossers of all time, because only one or two of those films were rated R. Then I saw the movie, and realized what a load of manipulative trash it was. I was torqued, but I was even more torqued that the movie really did make lots of money for these people who valued box office returns far more than they did the artistry of making a film. It’s vindication that Saving Private Ryan outgrossed it; Saving Private Ryan may have been manipulative, but at least it was artistic, and had some meaning and substance to it. I can’t really recall that many movies from Summer 1999, except for The Phantom Menace, which is another rant entirely. This summer (2000, that is), the Event Movie Programming Brigade brought us The X-Men and Mission: Impossible II. I liked The X-Men, in spite of its flaws, but it was so obvious that the management goons at Fox had their grubby little focus group loving paws all over it. It was watered down in ways that I cannot imagine Bryan Singer, the director of one of the finest films of all time (The Usual Suspects), would have desired…hence the need for another bloody uncut version of the film on an upcoming DVD (whether that second DVD ever sees the light of day is another matter entirely). Though it was a troubled production that ran late and was cobbled together at the last minute, Mission: Impossible II smacks of the same pandering to the masses tinkering that all the aforementioned summer films reeked of. John Woo is the master of on-screen violence, rivaled perhaps only by Quentin Tarantino (who liberally borrowed from Woo) and Sam Peckinpah (who was an inspiration to Woo). Why not let him do his thing unfettered? Why force him to manufacture blasé, middle-of-the-road, PG-13-ified violence? If you are going to have a sex scene in a movie — especially one featuring someone as delightfully delicious as Thandie Newton, not that I’m biased or anything — why not show it and let the network censors worry about taking it out later after they’ve paid millions for the broadcast rights? I am fully aware that the film studios that collectively make up Hollywood are in the business of making money, but why do so many of their films have to be pitched at the lowest common denominator? Saving Private Ryan wasn’t, and it made more money than Armageddon. The Sixth Sense presumed that its audience would be reasonably intelligent and would pay attention, and it raked in close to $300 million. Gladiator was brutally violent, and only Mission: Impossible II make more money than it this summer…and which movie did the critics and the general public like more? Time for a deep breath, followed by a long sigh…ahh, now I feel better.
Addressing the movie itself: I know countless critics have already said it, but why did Mission: Impossible II have to rely so heavily on the IMF’s most wonderful toy, the convincing latex mask? It’s used at least six times during the course of the movie, with the last two identity-swaps occurring so quickly you’d think they can apply it from a can like that fake hair stuff sold on infomercials. Once or twice is fine, but why stretch the bounds of believability that far?
Paramount has a tough row to hoe. They’ve established a poor reputation in the DVD community because of their featureless releases. It doesn’t look like they plan on changing any time soon, other than with ultra-high profile movies like Mission: Impossible II. It’s such a shame. Otherwise, their discs are fine. They almost always remix audio to Dolby Digital 5.1, and video transfers are top-notch, but at their lofty price point they stick it to the consumer by not making an effort to produce real special editions. I hope they can make an abrupt about-face like Fox, instead of going the MGM churning-out-the-crap route.
The movie isn’t perfect, but it’s entertaining, and that’s just about all you can expect out of a major blockbuster. I recommend Mission: Impossible II as a purchase, because it will withstand repeat viewings and it is the finest disc Paramount has released so far.