MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2

Directed by John Woo

Written by Robert Towne, based on a story by Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore

With Tom Cruise, Thandie Newton, Dougray Scott, Brendan Gleeson and Ving Rhames

**1/2



It's hard to imagine the achievements of classical Hollywood without the contributions of European émigrés like Douglas Sirk, Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, but unfortunately, the Hong Kong directors who came to Hollywood in the 90s have been badly mis-used. Given the obvious influence of American cinema on Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam, it certainly seemed possible  that they could make equally strong work in the U.S., but Tsui wasn't able to do more than  inject oddball visual touches into KNOCK OFF  without transcending its abysmal screenplay and performances. (CAHIERS DU CINEMA and some hardcore auteurists I know would beg to differ.) For an American - for me, at least - part of the attraction of Taiwanese directors like Hou Hsaio-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang lies in their distance from my own country's cinema, but the appeal of commercial Hong Kong films  lay in their synthesis of elements from American and Chinese culture. In his excellent new book PLANET HONG KONG: POPULAR CINEMA AND THE ART OF ENTERTAINMENT, David Bordwell sums this mixture up quite well: "Hong Kong satisfied a yearning for zany, well-crafted, and unironic enjoyment. These films defied canons of Western taste and plausibility while remaining familiar in genre and enticing in technique...One of the most articulate columnists {Gere LaDue} testifies 'Most HK fans were converted by the unique experience, the 'Whoa, where did this come from?' feel of that first film, which was not so much an encounter with a foreign culture as the twisting of something vaguely familiar into a new universe.' " Many of the best recent films from Taiwan, mainland China, Iran and even France proceed as if contemporary Hollywood didn't exist, but the best HK genre films managed to beat it at its own game.

An Australian pharmaceutical firm, Biocyte , has invented both the  deadly genetically engineered Chimera virus and its antidote. Ex-IMF agent Sean Ambrose (Scott) decides to steal the virus in order to spread it around Sydney, thus enabling Biocyte to make a fortune as the sole owners of its cure. In order to stop him, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is called to track Ambrose down via his ex-girlfriend Nyah (Newton), a master thief.  Hunt and Nyah wind up falling in love, leading to  complications when she agrees to help with his mission.

As it begins, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 adopts the feel of a (very) lite James Bond-style male fantasy, with Hunt mountain climbing,  jetting to exotic locations (Seville, Sydney) and sleeping with Nyah. While Nyah initially comes across as a potential equal to Hunt, she's rapidly reduced to a token of exchange between him and Ambrose, and, later on, a potential martyr  standing around helplessly waiting for the guys to get done chasing and beating each other up so they can save her. Although several very early Woo films featured female protagonists, most of his work has ignored women or idealized them to the point of non-existence. I've always found this ideologically problematic, but it was easier to forgive when balanced by strong emotional bonds between his male leads. Considering the weight given to Hunt and Nyah's tepid love story and the lack of chemistry between Cruise and Newton, the sexism of M:I2 seems all the more glaring.  MAGNOLIA gave me a newfound respect for Cruise's acting ability, but he reverts here to his customary handsome blankness, while Newton is relegated to decoration.

Auteurists will be pleased by the handful of John Woo touches in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2, including a flock of pigeons flapping away in slow motion before a shoot-out and - more importantly - a steady stream of parallels between the male leads. However, these parallels don't cut very deeply. The plot pivots around them - Ambrose disguises himself as Hunt in order to pull off his theft - without letting any moral ambiguity emerge. Given the flamboyant energy of Woo's direction,  the enormous  debt that his best films  owe to their screenplay and characterizations isn't readily apparent, but it's key to their impact. M:I2 offers one genuinely thrilling sequence, in which Hunt breaks into the Biocyte lab and tries to destroy the virus, but it has none of the emotional resonance of A BETTER TOMORROW, THE KILLER, BULLET IN THE HEAD or FACE/OFF. In its place, Towne's dialogue is full of glib interchanges that probably sound much more clever on paper than when spoken, and his reliance on disguise-driven plot twists feels like a cheap trick by the third time it's used.

Coming from a filmmaker with a deserved reputation for excess, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 is relatively restrained. Very little action gets underway in the first hour, which would be fine if that time was spent developing characters we could care about. At its best, M:I2 shows a sense of dynamics rare for contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, which prefer to grab you by the gut as soon as they begin and let go only when the end credits roll. This restraint pays off in the break-in scene, since its initial calm  gives the ensuing action all the more impact. However, the film's pacing is off: the first hour drags, while the final reel gets bogged down in endless - and fairly generic - chase and fight scenes.

Even so, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 undoubtedly would have been much worse in the hands of Michael Bay & co. As it is, it looks like a middling example of a Hong Kong-influenced American film: well-crafted but terribly bland work made by someone who got off on the gunplay of Woo's films but missed its grounding in real emotion. It's still a fairly pleasant way to kill 105 minutes, but there's something depressing about its blandness. Considering that Woo managed to make a personal and commercially successful American film with FACE/OFF, I hoped for something better than competent hackwork. Watching it is hardly  a unique experience, and it's not going to make anyone ask "Whoa, where did this come from?"