The Suits Who Shagged Him

Director John Woo's Mission is made next-to-impossible by Hollywood operatives

No matter what your opinion of the Mission: Impossible franchise, you've got to admit that the name itself is a brilliant bit of branding. Mission. Impossible. These missions are freakin' impossible. I mean, they're just not possible. No one could pull off these impossible missions. Who'd be fool enough to accept a mission that, by definition, is simply not possible? Christ Almighty, who would dare?! Whoever he is, he must really be something!

Enter the Heroic Agent, whose supreme intelligence, technical aptitude, and stainless-steel cojones transcend the ironic paradox of his job description. In his current incarnation, that agent is named Ethan Hunt, and he's played with appreciable moxie by Tom Cruise, an actor-producer whose clout, charisma, and annual earnings locate him in a world where--professionally, at least--anything is quite literally possible.

Muddled as it was, Cruise's first Mission was a welcome update of the American espionage set pieces of the Sixties and early Seventies, not to mention a more patriotic alternative to the recently reinvigorated 007 series. (Pierce Brosnan's Bond is cool and all, but no matter how often he scores, the guy still serves a monarchy and drives on the wrong side of the road.) But the intervening years have seen a steady Asian invasion that has become near-impossible to ignore. From Jackie Chan and children's toys to China's new trade status, our exposure to Far East diversions is more regular than ever before. So it was less a surprise than a logical development to see Hong Kong action craftsman John Woo recruited to helm Mission: Impossible 2 (or M:I-2, as the studio would like us to call it).

James Bond meets Jet Li and Jerry Maguire: Tom Cruise in M:I-2
James Bond meets Jet Li and Jerry Maguire: Tom Cruise in M:I-2

Naturally, Woo enthusiasts (and fans of Hong Kong action fare in general) still eye the director's move from Asian power player to American crossover property with considerable scrutiny. Now that Woo has found his most loyal international niche with such artfully rendered, HK-produced bullet fests as The Killer and Hard-Boiled, it was a vivid letdown to have the lackluster Van Damme vehicle Hard Target mark his first Hollywood feature. He was soon redeemed, though, by the success of Broken Arrow and Face/Off, both of which did mammoth box office on the strength of John Travolta's resurgent star and--especially in the latter case--the appeal of Woo's passionate and poetic brand of shoot-'em-up thrills, infused with seductive slo-mo interludes and an emotional depth lacking in most any Schwarzenegger project.

In theory, then, M:I-2 seemed preordained as Woo's biggest American breakthrough yet, powered as it is by high Hollywood royalty, a hot soundtrack, and his own proven pedigree. But while the director's trademark aesthetics shine through in a slew of riveting action sequences, the film suffers at the hands of an American production team (and, perhaps, an American audience) whose vision of romantic heroism remains stunted by smug one-liners and lusty innuendo.

Thanks to 007, we're used to secret agents with an appetite for nookie. Thus, when Cruise's Ethan Hunt is instructed by his shadowy government supervisor (Anthony Hopkins, in a throwaway cameo) to enlist the help of a comely English civilian thief (Beloved's Thandie Newton) in foiling the plot of some bad guys (Dougray Scott, Richard Roxburgh) to sell a deadly manmade virus, we can see the sparks coming a kilometer away. But this story, penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo), calls for more than just a shag between chase scenes: The two covert operators are meant to fall deeply in love, setting the stage for an intense entanglement in which Hunt is torn between his duty to country and his heart's desire.

Woo has handled this weight before, most notably in The Killer. By his reckoning, even the steeliest antihero can be moved by love and compassion, no matter how much ammo he unloads. Even in Face/Off, the stone-cold animosity between an FBI agent and a world-class terrorist was made palpably human by the characters' shared loyalty to family, their love and devotion to their own. In a genre where it's often enough to give the good guy a badge and the bad guy a foreign accent, the Woo school makes room for something deeper.

Sadly, however, the persistently clumsy chemistry between Cruise and Newton subverts this ideal. Throughout their too-short and too-shallow courtship, sultry Spanish visuals make for a properly romantic backdrop, but Towne's script feebly attempts to bear true love out of ribald, Bond-style double-entendres and a single roll in the sack. When, in a distinctly Hitchcockian twist, our hero is asked to send his new love back into the arms of her villainous old flame (Scott) to extract the details of his foul scheme, it's impossibly hard to believe that he's really so conflicted.

Newton, whose skill is evident in artier fare like Flirting and Besieged, disappoints equally. We assume her character is a skilled operative by the way she lies, manipulates, and handles her lock pick, but even in her more vulnerable moments, she's all doe eyes and zero determination. She seems fearless enough when trying to ram Cruise's convertible off the road and over a cliff, but when her own speedster starts skidding over the shoulder, she falls into dainty, high-pitched yelps like a teen queen in a haunted house.

Where the action mechanics are concerned, Woo still has an alluring, sure-handed way with even the most stilted conventions of the genre. Given to sleek tracking shots and lingering comic book close-ups, he somehow keeps this charged fantasy realm free of the cynicism that most American directors take for granted. The going gets great in the film's final third, which delivers a multitude of gasp-inducing stunts, bullet-hailing shootouts, and gracefully brutal hand-to-hand (and, often, foot-to-face) melees. Still, Towne's script repeatedly betrays the director's nobler motives. When good guy sidekick Luther (Ving Rhames) takes a bullet from the head baddie, he pauses to exclaim, "That punk put a hole in my Versace!" Such postmodern asides belong in Tarantino's world, not this one.

Comparisons are plenty apt between M:I-2 and The Matrix, last year's enduring fave that ably channeled the big heart and high style of Hong Kong action with an unmistakably American sci-fi sensibility. In both cases, an arsenal of reality-bending gadgets and fanciful disguises make it alarmingly easy to dismiss their respective impossibilities. In The Matrix, however, Keanu and his costars stay true to a stoic wonderment that transcends booty calls and body counts from beginning to end. Cruise, meanwhile, rests on the notion that James Bond, Jet Li, and Jerry Maguire can be fused into a single hero, able to engage toothy pillow talk in one act and risk everything for true love and ultimate justice the next--a mission that discriminating action fans may not so readily choose to accept.

 

Mission: Impossible 2 is playing at area theaters.

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