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Non-Review Review: Mission Impossible II

The single best description of this movie I have ever read was that it was “a two-hour long shaving commercial.”

I hope that thing has Cruise control...

There are several major problems with John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II. The primary problem is that it seems to really want to be an American Bond movie. A very particular American Bond movie at that. The superb GoldenEye seems to be the movie of choice. The villain of the piece is a former secret agents designed to remind us of the lead, with Dougray Scott standing in as an evil counterpart of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. There’s a familiar “flirtation by car” sequence set in Europe (Seville instead of Monaco, though). The movie’s core theme is the decay of honour and patriotism in the commercial age – the villain’s inevitably evil scheme is motivated by stock options rather than any ideological cause. None of this comes with the depth of GoldenEye, which is regarded by many as among the best Bond films by virtue of its strong character work.

However, more than that, the attempt to make “an American James Bond” ignores that fact that a lot of what makes Bond so inherently appealing is his Britishness. The Bond films work on a very British style of charm, with wit and irony balancing out the bombast and pyrotechnics – there’s something undeniably sophisticated and perhaps even engaging about the carnage and violence when executed with a sniff upper lip in a tuxedo. You can’t remove that Britishness from the core concept and expect it to work – Woo’s direction is just as over-the-top as a Bond film, but it takes it all too seriously. The Jason Bourne films perhaps come closest to Americanising the Bond experience, stripping out the British irony and replacing it with brutal American pragmatism.

All of this is exaggerated by Woo’s pompous use of symbolism. It was endearingly over-the-top in the superb Face/Off, but here it just seems overblown. The sight of two men knocking the living stuffing out of each other on the beach is not well served by constantly cutting away to the crashing waves – this is gratuitously choreographed action, not art house. Similarly, Ethan Hunt’s attempts to save his girlfriend by singlehandedly crashing a heavily secure bunker is not “important” enough to evoke the symbolism of a dove flying through the flames in slow motion. In fact, the dove seems a rather inappropriate symbol for the incredibly violent carnage about to follow.

Woo also has a really irritating manner of staging his most impressive sequences for low key events – how are we supposed to take genuine challenges serious when we’re shown at the start of the movie that Ethan Hunt climbs a mountain on his days off with impossible feats of badassery. When he spends is holidays leaping around like a frog and seemingly defying gravity while hanging from the edge of a cliff, you have to ask how any of what follows tasks him in the slightest.

It's a cliffhanger...

Similarly, even the most mundane activities are shown in the most ridiculously over-the-top manner possible. How does Hunt receive his mission briefing? Via a helicopter which fires a missile which contains exploding sunglasses. There’s no reason that they can’t just land the helicopter and talk to him – it certainly can’t be plausible deniability. I like to imagine two hikers in the area witnessing this - “Do you think that military helicopter has anything to do with that guy climbing that mountain there?” one asks; “Nah, it just flew up after him, hovered opposite him for a while and fired something that looked like a missile that didn’t explode at him,” the other replies, as plain as day.

That said, Woo’s stunt work is impressive. It’s all beautifully choreographed in slow motion as Hunt violate the laws of physics like an extra in a Gillette advertisement. Cruise is, despite his public persona, a good leading man – but, like most of the cast, it seems the film would have been happy to allow a wooden doll to stand in. Thandie Newton is wasted as the token damsel. I bet Dougray Scott is kicking himself that he turned down the role of Wolverine in Bryan Singer’s X-Men. Anthony Hopkins is deadly in a tiny role, even if it just seems like wandered randomly on to the set, was handed the script and said “why not?” in that vaguely creepy manner.

The setpieces are impressive, even if the movie is a little too pompous for its own good. There isn’t so much a plot as a series of scenes which don’t feature the characters running/shooting/fighting/jumping/gliding/etc. that give characters reasons to run/shoot/fight/jump/glide/etc. The rather laboured metaphors – the bioweapon is called “chimera” in reference to classic mythology and children sing “ring around a rose-y” (a song with links to plague) as the infected protagonist stumbles by – don’t help give any more credibility to a standard paint-by-numbers plot, and the attempts to develop it just end up with a needlessly convoluted mess.

Mission: Impossible II is a bit of a disappointment, to be honest. After the relatively subtle and surprisingly well-handled spy fantasy of the first film, this sequel doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and just stumbles around awkwardly. Woo does make the action sequences worth a watch, but there isn’t enough around them to make the movie truly worth while.

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