Updated: Oct 14, 2020
In a nutshell: Rogue IMF agent, Sean Ambrose has stolen a new deadly virus and plans to hold Sydney to ransom using the only cure. Ethan Hunt is tasked with recruiting a thief and ex-lover of Ambrose’s – in a bid to retrieve the virus and cure. There are lots of masks, guns and some doves too.
Warning: This review, should you choose to read it, contains spoilers.
“Every search for a hero must begin with something that every hero requires: A villain.”
Every review for a good M: I sequel, begins with something to judge them against a bad one. In my review of the first film, I mentioned that until Mission: Impossible Fallout, the series featured different directors with differing styles. However, that was not always the intention. Apparently, Brian De Palma was initially sought to return, but there are rumours of production clashes on the first film. Even Oliver Stone (who worked with Cruise on Born on the 4th July) was attached early on, but filming overran on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) so Stone walked. So Cruise, being the producer, went in a very different direction, recruiting revered Hong Kong action director John Woo.
Woo was still riding high off the success of Face/Off, which at the time, was held in high regard for reinvigorating the action genre. He and Cruise worked up some the key action sequences, which then a script (by returning writer Robert Towne) would be written around. It sounds like a terrible idea, yet Chris McQuarrie took the same approach for Rogue Nation and Fallout, and it’s worked out pretty well for him.
However, that’s the biggest problem with M: I 2. As one would expect from Woo, there are some amazing action sequences, but not much else to hold it together. Robert Towne, the renowned writer of 70’s noir classic Chinatown, tries to make some sense between the noisy action. So key conversations and exposition are shouted out of cars, during gunfights and over walkie talkies.
“Mr Hunt, this isn’t mission difficult, it’s mission impossible. “Difficult” should be a walk in the park for you.”
The plot also lurches around like a game of Consequences. The film opens with new memorable minor character Dr Nekhorvich (Rade Serbedzija), mumbling exposition about viruses, heroes, villains and getting to Atlanta. Then the doctor is on a plane, with Ethan Hunt, because they’re old friends. Why are they friends? No one knows. Then Ethan turns “evil” because Evil Ethan is actually Dougray Scott in a mask (the first of many face swaps) committing some classic 90’s era airborne terrorism.
Then we cut to an extended and thrilling sequence of Ethan Hunt free climbing a massive rock face. Why? To infiltrate a secret base? No, he’s just on holiday but hey, doesn’t it look cool?! So, the scene is completely pointless to the film and ultimately self-indulgent.
Woo claims he took on the project because he wanted to make a “romantic adventure film”. To be fair to the film, it really tries to aim for romance but sadly it’s not one of Woo’s strong points. As one would expect, he applies a tedious amount of slo-mo for scenes of tenderness. For a flirtatious encounter, Woo pushes his penchant for balletic action with a car chase that involves cars spinning, dancing even, across the road to the end of the cliff. Even with Hans Zimmer at full Han Zimmer, all dramatic tension is lessened by the sheer po-faced ridiculousness of the scene.
It doesn’t help Thandie Newton’s slick cat burglar is given little to work with – despite being cast before a script existed. When we first meet her character, Nyah, the camera spends as much time on her cleavage as it does her lock picking. Both the audience and Hunt are lead to believe she’s being recruited for her skills. However, as Anthony Hopkins’ chief clears up, no she’s just a bit of skirt to be fought over by hero and villain.
“You know, that was the hardest part about having to portray you, grinning like an idiot every fifteen minutes”
Whilst the first film had Ethan Hunt as “the point man”, in this film, it really is the Tom Cruise Show. Whilst Ving Rhames makes a welcome return and has a couple of decent one-liners, he’s literally a voice in Cruise’s head. There’s also Billy, who’s character traits consist of being Australian and a helicopter pilot. The poor guy has little else to do. Fortunately, JJ Abrams resolved this issue in Mission: Impossible 3, with the emphasis on proper teamwork being a recurring theme, going forward.
As the villain of the piece, Dougray Scott is on the verge of devouring all nearby sets and CGI backgrounds. Yet for me, he’s a guilty pleasure, I enjoy watching his twisted take Ethan Hunt. I would say he’s the Chimera to Hunt’s Bellerophon, but that would be a far too obvious comparison. Similar to Travolta in Face/Off, Scott gets to throw some decent shade at the Cruise, from “grinning like an idiot” to indulging in “aerobatic insanity”. He delivers some ripe dialogue with glee and makes him a villain you love to hate.
What of the star/producer? Well, Dougray is bang on the money, as Cruise is pretty much at his smuggest here. To be fair, Ethan Hunt has always been a bit of a cypher in the series. He’s always willing to push the limits to get the job done, he’s not afraid of heights…. and that’s about it. The original saw him play up his charms where needed, relying on his spy training without actually firing a gun. That’s all thrown out the window in M: I 2 for some full-on Wooing it, diving around with dual pistols and gunning down endless goons. All done, with fabulous hair, too.
“Getting your gun off…”
On balance, at least Woo does what he’s best at and the last 40 minutes of this film are a gleeful barrage of insane action. There’s face-swapping, stealth takedowns, obligatory doves, duelling on motorbikes and a climatic sandy scuffle where despicable Dougray gets his comeuppance.
Face/Off suffered from (hilariously) obvious stunt doubles whereas M:I 2’s strength is seeing all the crazy stuff Cruise performs. Obviously, the star has gone on to perform much crazier efforts in the franchise, which are getting harder to top with each film. For me, the Burj Kalifa sequence in Ghost Protocol is one of the most thrilling scenes in any film, ever.
Whilst the first Mission had some impressive stunts -like the Langley heist and the Fish Tank Explosion, M:I 2 really established insane stunts as a key selling point for the series. Whilst escalating Cruise’s insane stunts, the preceding directors have delivered what this film lacks, proper teamwork, humour and heart.
Despite the failed romance and muddy plot, the stunts in M:I 2 obviously resonated with audiences too. Many are quick to slate this film forget it was the most successful film of 2000. I know box office is no indicator of quality (see the Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises), though I wouldn’t be surprised if there were lots of repeat viewings based on the spectacle on offer.
In the lead up to Fallout, when revisiting these films, I imagine many will skip M: I 2. Yet for me, there’s still lots to enjoy, quality action, an operatic Hans Zimmer score (before he was renowned for such things) and some gleefully hammy performances from Dougray Scott and Anthony Hopkins. It’s all style and little substance, but sometimes that’s all you want from an action blockbuster.
Alternative Title: Face/Off 2: Cruise Control
Coulda Woulda Shoulda:
Ian McKellan turned down the role of Commander Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins).
Dougray Scott was initially cast as Wolverine in X-Men, however, due to production delays on MI2, he was forced to drop out, giving Hugh Jackman a career in the process!
Want more M: I Action? Check out our podcast review of Mission: Impossible and Mission: Impossible 2!