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MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2

by: Michael Dequina

Brevity, it seems, is but a side benefit of Paramount's insistence that Mission: Impossible II (as the film is called in its main title sequence) be referred to by its promotional title, M:I-2. The shorter title is a better fit for the John Woo-directed big-budget follow-up to the smash 1996 TV spinoff, for it never quite feels like a Mission: Impossible film. For that matter, it also never completely feels like a John Woo film. Fortunately, the strange middle ground M:I-2 achieves proves to be more than enough to satisfy anyone looking for a jolt of summer movie action.

However, it takes a while for that jolt to kick in. Woo is one of the best, if not the absolute best, directors of action films working today, and that's not necessarily because inventive ways of choreographing and editing gunfights (though that does play a large part). His best films, in particular those he made in his native Hong Kong, were also just as much concerned about the larger emotional and psychological issues in the story. His masterpiece, 1989's The Killer (which he also wrote), centered around a hitman's attempt at redemption; his best American film, 1997's Face/Off (which he didn't write--but certainly felt written especially for him) explored the common Woo theme of duality by having two men on opposite sides of the law swap faces and identities.

By contrast, Mission: Impossible is a spy caper, and by design it is more concerned with the nuts-and-bolts of convoluted espionage plots than anything about the characters. So in M:I-2's plot-establishing first two-thirds, Woo obviously doesn't have his heart in it, and the plodding pace is nowhere near the consistently rapid pulse Brian DePalma gave the first film. There are no big shootout set pieces for Woo to strut his stuff, so he is made to have whatever fun he can with a stylish but largely by-the-book car chase between our hero, Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), and Nyah Nordoff-Hall (a ravishing Thandie Newton), a sexy thief. Hunt is ordered by his nameless superior (an unbilled Anthony Hopkins) to recruit her for a mission to recover a deadly virus stolen by rogue agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott).

Cruise, who also produced, took the criticisms of the first Mission: Impossible's labyrinthine plot to heart, hence the simple plot that can be succinctly summarized by the above sentence. As such, M:I-2 is much easier to follow than its predecessor, but it is also less in the spirit of the original concept of the show. Contrary to one of the film's best lines in the film (delivered by Hopkins' character), the retrieval-of-the-virus assignment is more "mission difficult" than "mission impossible." As ridiculously complex as the first film's story was, it made for a more engrossing and convincing spy yarn.

Perhaps this was a concession to Woo and his style, for scripter Robert Towne also makes some attempt at a more intimate subplot, building a love triangle between Hunt, Nyah, and Ambrose. But it's not particularly well-developed, for I never detected much of a sincere connection between Nyah and her former love Ambrose, robbing this element of the story of any tension or suspense. Chalk up this weakness to Woo as well, for he skews the balance by effectively using his natural visual flair toward establishing the link between Hunt and Nyah, whose portrayers are nicely matched.

So far, not so good, and just when one is ready to completely dismiss Mission: Impossible II, at the end of the second act Towne's script finally plops Hunt in the middle of an impossible situation and gives Woo for the chance he'd been waiting for the entire film. With the bullets--as well as many people--flying about a laboratory in a spectacular shootout, everyone involved in the production appears to be galvanized: all the cast members (especially Cruise, who clearly gives his all) and, a

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