Film discussion

Looking back at… Mission: Impossible 2

Four years would pass before audiences would get a follow-up impossible mission to Brian De Palma’s 1996 blockbuster hit. In the months following Tom Cruise setting the box office alight with his first portrayal of Ethan Hunt, both he and his then-wife Nicole Kidman would make the trip to London to film Stanley Kubrick’s latest production, Eyes Wide Shut, and end up being involved in the longest film shoot ever conducted, with its production lasting for a Guinness World Records inclusion run of fifteen months.

When Mission: Impossible returned to multiplexes in the summer of 2000, it would do so under the eye of a different director and be even more of a departure from the original television series, instead coming across as an American attempt at trying to create their own equivalent of Eon Productions’ James Bond series, something that the original television series had always tried to avoid.

The reasoning for Brian De Palma not returning for the sequel was pretty mysterious in some respects. When the first film was being released and the cast and De Palma were expected to do press interviews, De Palma pulled out at the last-minute with no reason, with many suspecting that he had done so due to a fraught working relationship with star Tom Cruise.

With De Palma out, Cruise and producer Paula Wagner brought in John Woo to direct, facilitating a substantial change in style. While De Palma was very much a thriller director who manages to bring a Hitchcockian charge to action sequences, Woo was a much more visceral pair of hands, having made a major name for himself internationally with The Killer, Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow, not to mention a significant working relationship with Chow Yun-Fat, as well as powerful use of slow motion and spectacular staging of gunfights that made him one of the most influential on the action genre.

On top of Woo coming in, the film developed itself around a script that, for the most part, was contributed to by famed Hollywood writer Robert Towne who claimed that many of the high-octane action sequences of the film, which are much more over the top than what came before, had already been decided upon and which a story, with involvement from famed Star Trek writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, was then developed around.

Unlike last time, with the biggest criticism being that De Palma’s film was substantially way too complicated, this time there is a more straightforward narrative as Hunt alongside a returning Ving Rhames and newcomers John Polson and Thandie Newton, have to stop a rogue IMF agent, and somewhat of a darkened version of Hunt, Sean Ambrose, portrayed by Dougray Scott, from unleashing a deadly virus on to the world…or at the very least Australia.

Right from the outset the thing to note about Mission: Impossible 2 is how immediately different to the first film it is. At this stage in the series, it’s clear that Cruise and Wagner’s intention of giving each film its own identity was very much true. Right from the very beginning, the second Mission: Impossible feels so much more different from De Palma’s.

Where De Palma made his impossible mission much of a thriller, relying on tracking down “the traitor in the organisation” plotting with intermittent bursts of, admittedly spectacular, action, Woo’s film goes all out to make up for any lack of action the first time around; accompanied by a blisteringly entertaining Hans Zimmer score, the film is awash in the sunshine of Sydney, Australia as opposed to the more chilly environs of Prague and the rain-soaked streets of London, with set pieces that rely less on old-school thriller and more on high-octane stunt work and elaborate editing, the latter credited to Christian Wagner, but a lot of it accomplished through uncredited work by Stuart Baird, brought in by Paramount to tone down the violence to obtain a PG-13 rating, although still considered strong enough in the UK to be granted a 15 by the BBFC.

This being a Woo film, the action is both spectacular in the way one would imagine from the famed action auteur, but also bloodless. While his Hollywood output was mixed to say the last, it still retained some of the bloodier edges of his Hong Kong work with the likes of Hard Target, Broken Arrow and Face/Off, the latter being his best American work, not afraid to show the carnage and damage down by bullets to the body. The film is very well edited, but once can still see where the more edgier, darker moments have been cut, with scenes about to show a bullet hitting someone cutting away right before the moment of impact.

Mission: Impossible 2 may be bloodless, but it can still get the adrenalin pumping, with Zimmer’s score and the inclusion of a Limp Bizkit version of Lalo Schifrin’s theme music adding to the chaos fantastically.

Upon release, reviews were more decidedly mixed; the action was acclaimed but the more simplistic story was criticised. Watching the movie as a sixteen-year-old, and coming the summer after the brilliance that was The Matrix, Mission: Impossible 2 filled an aesthetic hole for this reviewer as we waited patiently for more of the Hong Kong-inspired action theatrics from Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus.

On a pure action level, the film works brilliantly, and some of the stunt work, fight sequences, gunfights and explosions are some of the best to appear in an action movie from the 2000’s. The story may be more straightforward, but it does fit more into line with where espionage movies were at during this period of time, a period when spy movies such as the Pierce Brosnan era of the James Bond series relied more on spectacle and technology-driven plots as opposed to the more moral complexities that would come into the genre, unavoidably and powerfully it should be said, post-9/11 in the likes of The Bourne movies, the Daniel Craig era of the Bond series, and television series such as 24 and Alias, the latter created by JJ Abrams who would be handed the keys to the franchise with its next installment which would actually give the series a thematic style and direction with which to settle into and drive into with the next set of films by Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie.

In some respects Mission: Impossible 2 has always been viewed as the lesser of the series, although it was a massive success in 2000 and became the highest grossing movie of its year. On an aesthetic level, the film is superb, edited to precision, poundingly scored and featuring action sequences that really go toe-to-toe with the best of the James Bond series. Its plotting may be less complex but it’s hard to complain when the film is an entertaining as it is.

However, it does lose points for how it treats Nyah Hall, played by Thandie Newton. A wonderful actress, as anyone who has seen her recent turn in Westworld can attest to, she’s merely here to be a love interest for Cruise and something of a sex object for both Hunt and Ambrose to drive the story along, while some of the dialogue, which presumably came from Robert Towne, feels as sexist as anything that the James Bond series has come up with.

Yes, its production values are high and the action so entertaining that to complain seems churlish until you remember how egotistical it can almost seem as well given how great Cruise looks throughout and how much the camera loves him, all the while the film bears his names producer. It’s remarkable how often the film sometimes feels like it stops to allow Cruise, with a longer hairstyle here, to turn around dramatically, filmed in Woo’s trademark slow motion and allow both himself and his longer hairstyle to look so good here, almost to the extent that one expects Hunt to break the fourth wall so he can start talking about the virtues of using Loreal For Men while on the mission.

It would be another long gap of six years before the series would return and with it another change in director who would essentially use the movie to make a big screen version of his own cult small-screen spy series with which he made his name.

After two rolls of the dice for Mission: Impossible, creatively speaking if not commercially, it would be third time a charm.

Are you a fan of MI2? Let us know!

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