Mission: Impossible 2 Retrospective
In the summer of 1996, Tom Cruise made what was, in hindsight, the biggest Hollywood splash of his entire career. Mission: Impossible (henceforth M:I) was a loose adaptation of the famous television series from the 1960s and early 70s (with a relatively unfruitful revival in the 80s). “Loose” insofar as director Brian De Palma injected many of his wonderful de Palma-isms into the fun, as well as its startling handling of the iconic Jim Phelps character. The plan, as it was at the time, was to make every M:I distinct. Hire a new director and let them have at it. If the first entry was very much a De Palma film that still adhered “close enough” to the spirit of the show, audiences and long-time fans could not have expected what came next in 2000.
A Mission: Impossible 2 under the ostentatious guidance of Hong Kong action movie legend John Woo.
2000 was a long time ago at this point, so it feels right to remind some people that the highly anticipated sequel was not in fact Woo’s first foray into Hollywood moviemaking. After earning a reputation at home and abroad in the 1980s and early 90s with such iconic films as A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard Boiled, Woo transplanted over the Pacific to California. The new journey began with Hard Target in 1993, followed by a couple of films starring John Travolta, Broken Arrow and the fan favourite Face/Off. The time had come however to make something truly humungous, and what better project than a Tom Cruise-led sequel to M:I?
Equipped with a script from Robert Towne, who had co-written de De Palma’s entry, and backed by the unstoppable star power of Tom Cruise, John Woo was going to show the world what he was all about. He was going to flex his action movie muscles as he had never flexed them before. M:I 2 is so much a John Woo film that it ultimately accomplishes two very important things. Number one, it set the series on a path where each successive instalment evolved into a bigger and better action-spy adventure instead of an espionage-thriller, thus truly forsaking the spirit of the original show. Number two, there isn’t another entry like it. It’s the most John Woo-esque American film. East meets West.
From Tequila to Ethan Hunt
In preparation for this retrospective, a re-watch of 1992’s Hard Boiled felt in order. If the point of this article is to argue that M:I 2 is the fusion of Hollywood flare with Woo’s Eastern background, might as well recall what his most famous Hong Kong film is like. Suffice it to say, the results are rather astonishing.
Hard Boiled follows Tequila (Chow Yun-fat), a… all right, a hard-boiled police detective as he tracks down the whereabouts of a Triad gun deposit. He’s assisted by Tony Leung’s Alan, who is operating undercover with the gangsters. To put it bluntly, both characters are presented as super cool, especially Tequila. From the opening scene in which he prepares his own vodka tonic before playing the jazz flute in front of a crowd at a nightclub, to his daring escapades against hordes of villains, the protagonist is the essence of awesome. Sure, his partner is wiped out in the opening sequence, but it isn’t entirely his fault. Other than the one misstep, Chow Yun-fat’s character is basically untouchable.
Cut to Ethan Hunt. Even before the opening credits, audiences are privy to how amazing and brave the character is as he puts his alpinist skills to the test with a rock climb in Utah. The scene is so cool it’s worthy of a place on an M:I stunts ranking! No rope needed, jumping from cliff to cliff, resting whilst nudging his knees into a tiny crevasse, Ethan shows no fear.
The way in which Tom Cruise’s character is portrayed in M:I 2 makes him look like the coolest cat we’ll ever see in our entire lives. The previous film certainly showcased a flawed, betrayed Ethan. Each of the next films put him through the wringer, both physically and emotionally. It isn’t that nothing at all happens in this second film that challenges the hero. Woo’s interpretation of Ethan Hunt harkens back to how he handled his heroes when working in Hong Kong: he’s just a total bad *ss who will ooze cool while doing his stunts. Ethan looks at least a little afraid while doing stunts in the other films. In M:I 2 it feels like an ordinary Monday at the IMF.
John Woo’s Signature
If one hasn’t watched a Woo film in some time and gives M:I 2 a whirl, some signature flourishes may not pop, hence why the Hard Boiled revisit was so revelatory. Some are obvious even if certain details of the director’s Hong Kong pictures have begun to fade from memory. Others are sneaky, but without question repeated techniques from earlier projects.
Is there an M:I film in which Ethan Hunt fires off as many bullets as he does in this second chapter? The iconic “ballet of bullets” takes center stage, especially in the Chimera laboratory sequence and at the end while escaping Sean Ambrose’s hideout (Dougray Scott). God only knows where the extra clips are stashed in that glorious leather jacket Hunt sports. Irrespective of whether it’s realistic or not, John Woo makes the audience fully aware that he is an expert in depicting gun fights with bravura. He gifts them with a level of showmanship rarely exemplified by even the greatest action movie directors. It’s why Woo is associated with gunplay as an art form, as odd as that reads. It’s what he does, period.
Slow motion also features prominently. The filmmaker likes to give important beats within action scenes (dramatic ones too) the slow-mo treatment. Few can do it like him, perhaps because few understand blocking and editing like him. Slow down the frame rate when Hunt ducks for cover, when he jumps to land a roundhouse kick, when he spins his motorcycle to land the perfect shot into the chest of a gunman riding a pursuing vehicle. Any awesome moment is deserving of slow motion in a Woo film.
Then there are the smaller tricks he leans on to make a point. Cutting to a frame several times a second or two apart to emphasize the impact of a gun firing. One is almost a copy and paste from Hard Boiled. There is a scene when Tequila and Alan are trying to pry open heavy metal doors that lead to the Triad gun depot. Tequila gets the idea to fill a nearby pipe with gunpowder and fire off a shot to blow the doors open. Just as he shoots the picture zooms in on Tequila and quickly zooms in on the pipe. The exact same technique is borrowed for M:I 2 when Hunt blows up the baddie’s compound by firing at some gas canisters.
Even the extended tête-à-tête between Hunt and Ambrose on the beach during the climax is much like the elongated confrontation between Tequila, Alan, and Mad Dog in the hospital. Granted, the latter try to take each other out with guns whereas Hunt and Ambrose engage in fisticuffs, but both contests keep on going for a long time. The villains and heroes are so expertly matched that each cancels out whatever tiny advantage the other might gain.
Never in Doubt
So many more examples pervade M:I 2. Preposterous motorcycle mayhem, bonkers stunts with real fire involved (the flaming car that still gives chase with gunmen inside near the end is utter madness), the hero having a perfect aim when shooting at anything from anywhere, etc. There are so many Woo touches throughout the film, one may be forgiven for temporarily forgetting they are watching a Mission: Impossible movie. Yes, the protagonist is Ethan Hunt played by Tom Cruise. He works for the IMF. There is a little “message will self-destruct” gag at the start. But by and large, this is a John Woo movie more so than it is an M:I adventure.
That doesn’t make it a bad movie. One need only temper their expectations. If anyone has never seen M:I 2 or hasn’t watched it in many years and is coming at it with greater familiarity with, say, Ghost Protocol or Fallout, do not expect an older version of those movies.
No other film in the series is like it. Nor could any other entry be like it. Who else would include a heavenly white flying dove in a money shot of Tom Cruise walking in slow motion by a fire?