Why Mission: Impossible II is underrated
James R | On 24, Jul 2018
Director: John Woo
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Ving Rhames, Thandie Newton
One of Mission: Impossible’s strengths as a franchise is that it’s not only about Tom Cruise; it’s also about its directors. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than by Mission: Impossible II, the series’ difficult second album. Every film has proven a showcase for a different action auteur, from Brian De Palma (dutch tilt and deception) and Brad Bird (live-action cartoon) to JJ Abrams (blue filter, meta script). Cruise has been the single constant anchoring the series, delivering on absurd stunts and leading man charisma, so that the pieces around him (villains, supporting characters, tone) can vary to fit the person at the helm.
Where do you go after Brian De Palm’s 1996 thriller? His noir-tinged flick was heavy on espionage, bridging the gap between the old-school TV and modern blockbuster. But Mission: Impossible II is the stepping stone to what the franchise really is – a crucial stage in the series’ evolution that gave the films the flexibility to adapt and change, while maintaining some basic continuity. Screenwriter Robert Towne stayed on to pen the script, and it’s no coincidence that once again, several action sequences were already on paper before the plot was formed – from now on, the series was driven by its spectacle and stunts, rather than its storytelling.
Who do you bring in to realise those extravagant, explosive moments? Enter John Woo, master of balletic bulletplay, slow-motion doves and anything else that might be deemed overkill. The director came to the project hot on the heels of Face/Off, Hard Target and Broken Arrow, a trio of US actioners from the Hong Kong maestro that cemented his worldwide status as king of guns-and-slow-motion-doves. It’s not hard to see the appeal, given Face/Off’s obsession with duplicity and high-octane showdowns, and Towne and Woo immediately dial up the face masks accordingly. And so what began as a spy thriller is turned into a two-man conflict between Ethan Hunt and Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), agents who have doubled for each other in the past.
For those who complained Mission: Impossible was too complicated, this is the consciously stripped-down antidote. The mission is simple: deliver maximum adrenaline with minimal plot. Ambrose plans to unleash a global virus and make a fortune off the antidote, and Hunt must stop him. That’s it. There are casualties from that reductive direction, most notably Thandie Newton as an expert thief, Nyah Nordoff-Hall, who has previous with Ambrose and helps Hunt to infiltrate his inner circle – think Hitchcock’s Notorious, but with more slow-motion doves. Newton, who has shone in Line of Duty and Westworld, is wasted on a shallow love triangle, but Hunt and Ambrose fare equally badly in the character stakes: this isn’t a Mission: Impossible sequel; it’s a John Woo movie.
Cruise, meanwhile, also establishes his role in the franchise: from the opening sequence, which sees him actually free climbing in Utah without a stuntman, he proves himself as an action man through and through (with impeccable hair). In doing so, he roots the franchise’s thrills firmly in a very real sense of peril: this movie redefined the word “Impossible” is defined as “anything Tom Cruise can’t do”, paving the way for the series’ cycle of one-upmanship, which has consistently delivered entertaining results.
Woo’s eye-catching composition sets the bar high, from flaming motorcycle chases to laboratory shootouts. Some aerial wirework recaptures the fun of the opening film’s iconic set piece, while Ving Rhames’ Luther also makes the cut, once again providing comic relief and high-tech wizardry. Alongside Anthony Hopkins’ brief cameo as a joking IMF chief – “This is not mission difficult, Mr. Hunt, it’s mission impossible. Difficult should be a walk in the park.” – the switch is set firmly to “Knowing”, and that nudge-wink humour is relentless, serving up face mask gag after face mask gag. The only thing missing is Ethan Hunt swapping face with a dove, and even then, you wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility.
The result is the series’ most divisive entry, but also it’s most undervalued – and not just because it’s cinema’s equivalent of George Bailey (the film took Scott away from X-Men’s Wolverine, freeing up the role for Hugh Jackman, and saved Thandie Newton’s career from Charlie’s Angels). Mission: Impossible II is the only Mission: Impossible movie to actually centre around one main mission, it’s the Mission: Impossible movie that finalised the formula for the franchise, and it’s one of the few good John Woo movies to be made in the last 20 years. Don’t like it? Skip to the next director’s remix of the franchise – but be grateful that you can only do so thanks to this underrated sequel. Did we mention the slow-motion doves?