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'Mission: Impossible 2'

'Mission': big, tough, loud -- and not too bright

Wednesday, May 24, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

John Woo plans to keep doing this until, what? Everyone realizes he's been making the same movie over and over?

"Mission: Impossible 2"

Rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of violent action and some sensuality.

Starring: Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton.

Director: John Woo.

Web site: www.mission

Critic's call: 2 1/2 stars


"Mission: Impossible 2" marks the fourth American film by the former Hong Kong action director. I never saw the first, "Hard Target," probably because it starred Jean-Claude Van Damme (my mama didn't raise any fools). The other three prove to be remarkably similar in plot and theme.

"Broken Arrow," "Face/Off" and now "Mission Impossible 2" each spotlight an A-list movie star cast either as a man who plans to annihilate a major population center or as the fellow trying to prevent it.

Each movie links hero and villain in a fundamental way, sometimes to the point where they seem interchangeable. In "Broken Arrow," John Travolta steals a nuclear weapon and blackmails the government by threatening to atomize Denver. His former Air Force co-pilot, Christian Slater, who refused to go along with the scheme, tries to thwart it. (What does Travolta have against Denver, by the way? That's where the aliens in "Battlefield Earth" set up shop.)

In Woo's best movie, "Face/Off," good guy Travolta and nasty boy Nicolas Cage literally swap mugs, switching identities in an intricate game of deception. Cage has placed a huge explosive device in the center of Los Angeles. Travolta must find it and bring Cage to justice.

"Mission: Impossible 2" finds Tom Cruise reprising the role of Impossible Missions Force leader Ethan Hunt. His quarry is Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), a rogue IMF agent who has posed as Hunt in previous missions. These fellows don't need to graft on new faces, as Travolta and Cage did. They just slip on those skintight, amazingly lifelike masks that cover the entire head and peel off from the neck up. Hunt employs a couple of them at a moment's notice during one crucial scene -- how did he know he'd need them, and where did he carry them?

Anyhow, Ambrose has filched a deadly virus invented by Dr. Nekhorvich (Rade Sherbedgia), a scientist working for an Australian pharmaceutical company. Ambrose plans to sell it to the highest bidder. But at some point he threatens to -- you guessed it -- unleash the virus on the population of Sydney and, ultimately, on the entire world.

Woo's movies conclude with the kind of action scenes that made him famous -- stylized, over-the-top mano-a-mano brawls to the death featuring unlikely martial-arts moves and utterly preposterous motorized stunts that make James Bond look like a Sunday driver.

In "Mission: Impossible 2," Hunt and Ambrose ride motorcycles at each other full speed and, with apparent intent, hit bumps that send them flying into the air where they collide, chest to chest. In real life, no one would survive a Woo slugfest for a fraction of the time they endure on screen. If we are moved to laugh, that seems intentional, too. In the end, Woo's heroes forget why they are fighting each other. Like roosters in battle, all that matters is proving you're the bigger cockerel.

"Mission: Impossible 2" gives the antagonists a secondary motive for squaring off -- a woman. Each is in love with Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton), a beautiful and accomplished thief. Hunt finds himself uneasily putting her at risk a la Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious," sending her into the devil's lair to seduce him for information.

Unfortunately, females seldom count for much in Woo's world. When Hunt protests that she's not trained for the mission, his boss (Anthony Hopkins, who appears in all of two scenes) replies unctuously that she's a woman -- getting a man into bed and lying to him should be second nature. Where's Gloria Steinem when you really need her? Or should we blame screenwriter Robert Towne? At least his plot is easier to follow than that of the first movie.

Newton, a talented actress utilized here mostly for her cool beauty, works so well with Cruise that I wish they had more scenes together. Unfortunately, in both "Mission: Impossible" movies, Cruise prefers to go it alone (can't have anyone prettier than he is, now can we?). He's the producer, too (with partner Paula Wagner, a Carnegie Mellon alumna), so I guess that gives him the right.

But the TV series on which these films are based counted precision teamwork as its No. 1 attribute. Cruise wants the glory for himself, or so it seems. In the first picture, the rest of the IMF team gets killed off. In this one, he has two assistants. One is Ving Rhames, back as the computer genius from the first movie. The other, a brash Aussie played by John Polson, is little more than a gofer. Newton's character simply disappears for most of the second half of the film.

That leaves Hunt and Ambrose. Like I said, mano-a-mano -- except for the dozens of Ambrose's henchmen whom Hunt dispatches like flies. They've got machine guns, he's got a pistol. Guess who survives and who doesn't.

So what does it all mean in the end? You can't always tell friend from foe? You can't trust anyone and anything, including your own eyes? Men are men, and women should be glad of it? You shouldn't live in big cities? Learn to shoot straight?

Nah. What it means is, Woo has found a formula that works. His considerable skill as a director keeps his films visually interesting and packed with action. Not only does everything look larger than life, it also sounds louder and hits harder. He magnifies everything, and goes so far beyond realism that some scenes take on a dreamlike quality. If you like 'em pretty and don't care if they're smart, "Mission: Impossible 2" fills the bill.

Even so, Woo should be looking over his shoulder. For all the derring-do he throws at the screen, he also commits a lot of standard movie cliches. And while his climactic action duel may be as audacious as ever, I looked at all the martial-arts moves and slow-motion shots and fancy camera angles and up-close fighting techniques and realized "The Matrix" did it better.

Look out, John. There are a couple of new guns in town by the name of Wachowski. They made Keanu Reeves cool. Now THAT'S Mission: Impossible.

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