Who wants to be decent?
It shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s seen the movie to read a 2016 interview and learn how screenwriter Robert Towne came aboard John Woo‘s Mission: Impossible II after the big action sequences were already set in stone. His job was to therefore connect those choreographed behemoths into a cohesive enough story to invest audiences beyond the requisite quick-cut fisticuffs and volatile explosions. Towne was more or less set-up to fail and there’s nobody but Tom Cruise to blame, especially since the two worked together to bring the franchise’s first installment to life four years earlier. I guess Cruise wanted more panache and less mystery this time around—more blockbuster thrill appeal at the detriment of intellectual stimulation. And no matter how hard Towne tried, that’s exactly what he got.
The result was a John Woo film—not Mission: Impossible. Back then it was difficult to make that distinction because it was the second part of what’s grown to include four more sequels. You could have gotten away with the notion that they were “trying a different direction” and the box office take (the highest gross of 2000) could have been evidence that the experiment worked. Hindsight has shown the opposite, however. It has proven that the mystery and espionage built into the property is what makes it unique within a landscape of actioners often much dumber than its potential. With that train of thought, Woo may have saved the franchise by exposing its limitations. The film that almost killed the brand set the path for its rebirth.
I’m not exaggerating when I say “kill” because this is an objectively bad movie that does everything its predecessor didn’t in the worst way. The central idea of pitting Ethan Hunt (Cruise) against another of his agency’s men (Dougray Scott‘s uncontrollable Sean Ambrose) is an inspired follow-up to a tale of traitorous double cross, but exposing this enemy in the opening scene makes it difficult to retain intrigue. After the initial revelation that someone’s impersonating Hunt—under orders from their mutual boss Commander Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins) no less—our rush of excitement is easily erased upon realizing the subsequent action is literally just the two fighting over a woman. A nasty disease might be their true target, but the whole is really just a pissing contest for love.
The woman is Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton), a thief with multiple international warrants on her head that just happens to be Ambrose’s ex. Rather than let her be a part of the team—like Hunt believes is the goal—she is written to be bait. If she can infiltrate his criminal operation and steer clear of Ambrose’s paranoid lieutenant Hugh Stamp (Richard Roxburgh), Nyah can feed the information Ethan needs to complete the mission. So here’s this badass woman that’s introduced as a sexy cat burglar using everything at her disposal to achieve her goals relegated to a damsel in distress bargaining chip. For some reason a weaponized super-flu that’s already killed its creator (Rade Serbedzija) being auctioned off to terrorists isn’t enough. Country isn’t enough.
Suddenly the intricate web of deceit we experienced in Brian De Palma‘s original film is thrown to the side so we can watch yet another example of toxic masculinity overpowering reason as though women are only relevant by being saved. And if that’s not enough, the plot to put her in escalating danger and thus push Ethan closer to the edge of acting out of self-interest rather than duty goes on forever. I don’t mind having a ton of action scenes to get the blood pumping with death-defying stunts and motorcycle chases, but this need to constantly slow them down for glamour shot close-ups doing nothing besides ruining pacing and reinforcing feelings for which we’re already aware is excruciating. And it breeds a necessity for convenience.
Too often the fights need a stroke of luck so the bad guy gets away or good guy gets saved. Just look at the clock to see whether it’s time for Ambrose to die because we assume he can’t until the end (and know Hunt won’t because he’s the star). This ruins suspense. It makes it so the surprisingly bold in-film reboot of the original is off the table. From frame one it’s Hunt versus Ambrose with everyone else in the way. Maybe Stamp dies. Maybe Luther Strickell (Ving Rhames) does too—at the very least his designer wardrobe must. But neither would matter. The only death that would is Nyah’s, but to the film’s detriment. She would merely become a martyr that throws the machismo into overdrive.
That level of “man’s man” violence is all Mission: Impossible II has to offer. It’s only morsel of sensitivity and compassion comes from Ambrose crying at his love’s betrayal—an act earning nothing but laughs since there’s no way he could come off as sympathetic by that point. You could almost forgive it all if the plot itself stayed true to its motivations, but it can’t thanks in large part to the issues described in paragraph one. Because Nyah must be in trouble to supply motivation, her job of getting information proves meaningless. The characters must instead leverage the disease’s owner (Brendan Gleeson‘s McCloy), a fact that only complicates matters by adding yet another unimportant face to the fray. Rather than streamline, Woo and company always augment.
By the end it’s too unwieldy to care whether Ethan saves the girl or not. Towne tries by making her survival synonymous with mankind in a blatant move to manipulate us into justifying Hunt’s decision to put one life above many, but we’re beyond exhausted when it finally matters. And any suspense that moment possesses is ruined with more close-ups of characters stalling to inexplicably cement their own fates by hamming for the camera instead of shooting first. It’s pure style over substance creating a hollow shell of which we’re only too aware. The comedy is gone and the severity that replaces it is suffocating. Woo did give Cruise a taste for senseless stunts, though. Luckily it seems subsequent scripts are now written before figuring out the logistics.