Published on July 10th, 2015 | by Brad0
IMFridays – Mission: Impossible II
After the massive success of the first Mission: Impossible in 1996, the Hollywood inevitability drive demanded that a sequel emerge. And in the summer of 2000, Ethan Hunt returned in Mission: Impossible II. Brian De Palma was gone from the director’s chair this time, replaced by Hong Kong action legend John Woo, fresh off the success of Face/Off – still his best American work. With the change in director came a change in style, as Mission: Impossible II takes a significantly more action-oriented approach than its predecessor.
The film opens with Russian biochemist Dr Vladimir Nekhorvich giving a voiceover about how the search for a hero must begin with a villain, as justification for his work in creating a super virus (Chimera) in his search for a one-size-fits-all cure for every strain of influenza (Bellerophon). Smuggling the virus in his bloodstream, Nekhorvich is being escorted to the World Health Organisation headquarters in Atlanta by his old friend Ethan Hunt. When their plane runs into trouble, revealed to be instigated by Richard Roxburgh and his spectacularly over the top South African accent, Hunt kills Nekhorvich before pulling away his mask to reveal he is actually Sean Ambrose (perennial film villain Dougray Scott). Ambrose and crew steal the cure in Nekhorvich’s briefcase and crash the plane, unaware that they were destroying the virus in the process.
The real Ethan Hunt is introduced free solo climbing the cliffs of Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah. Tom Cruise is one of the few Hollywood stars who signs onto this type of film specifically so he can do these types of stunts, which is one of the great appeals of the series. Though he was wearing a harness, there’s no safety net underneath him, so when Hunt makes the leap from one cliff to another, that’s really Tom Cruise doing that, he’s really that high up, and he really would have fallen had something gone wrong with the harness. It’s a thrilling reintroduction to Ethan Hunt, and sets the tone not just for Mission: Impossible II but the entire franchise to follow.
Hunt is instructed by IMF head Anthony Hopkins to take down Ambrose and recover Chimera. In order to do this, Hunt must recruit Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton), master thief and former girlfriend of Ambrose. However, Hunt and Nyah wind up in a relationship before Hopkins instructs him to send her in to seduce Ambrose. Which begs the question – have you ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s fantastic 1946 film Notorious? Because the writers of Mission: Impossible II definitely have! It’s a bold move to put yourselves in the exalted company of the Master of Suspense, as you’ll typically come up short.
Using Nyah, Hunt and his team (helicopter pilot Billy, played by John Polson as the most stereotypical Aussie ever, and the returning Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames)) track Ambrose to Sydney. After discovering that the last of the virus is held in the labs of the pharmaceutical company Nekhorvich worked for, Hunt stages a daring break-in to destroy it. This requires him to leap from a helicopter through an opening in the roof of a skyscraper, drop through the 30-storey atrium, and land on the floor and get the cables clear in a 40 second window. All the while, Ambrose and his men are taking the less subtle approach of shooting the security guard and coming in from the ground floor. In the midst of the chaos, Nyah – whose duplicity Ambrose has discovered – is infected with Chimera, leaving Hunt 20 hours to take down Ambrose and get her the cure.
As is so often the case with John Woo’s work, Mission: Impossible II is chiefly preoccupied with the duality and dichotomy between its two male leads, two sides of the same coin. Cruise and Scott carry the conflict very well, and their final face-off is one of the stand-out action sequences of the film. Which, given that it’s a John Woo film, is saying something. For better or worse, the film plays as somewhat of a greatest hits package of Woo’s finest tropes, with people diving through the air firing guns in slow motion, doves flying through fire, flashbacks to things we just saw ten minutes ago and just the sheer amount of people who get killed. Thandie Newton does fine with the least interesting role in this twisted love triangle, and she has great chemistry with Cruise. Of note in the supporting cast is Richard Roxburgh. Roxburgh is the type of actor for whom the traditional notions of good performance and bad performance don’t really apply. Roxburgh gives weird performances. His accent here is meant to be South African (which is weird enough, since he’s an Australian actor and the movie’s set in Australia), but it’s like no South African I’ve ever heard outside of my own deliberately bad South African accent, which is supposed to suggest South African whilst making you laugh. In hindsight, I may have been unconsciously modelling it on Roxburgh.
For all that Mission: Impossible II is more action-packed than its predecessor, it also feels a lot slower. John Woo attempts to create deeper meaning through his cinematography at times, drawing visual connections to create a more epic feel to proceedings. This doesn’t play out as well as you might hope, and it lacks the frenetic sense of energy and constant forward motion of Mission: Impossible. For this it’s generally thought of as the weakest of the Mission: Impossible series. I don’t entirely agree – it has a plot and a villain, which are more than one can say for Ghost Protocol – but I can understand that position. But it’s proof that, even in its lesser instalments, the Mission: Impossible franchise has the capacity to thrill and enthral. The switch from De Palma to Woo gives the film a different rhythm and the switch between auteurs behind the camera would continue to serve the series well into the future.
Next time, a TV producer gets his first film directing gig and Ethan Hunt retires and gets married. It’s the best one!