The concept behind the Mission: Impossible movies is enticing: Take a great director, a modern master of technique and thrills, and put him behind the wheel of a big-budget Tom Cruise movie — Brian De Palma directed the first one in 1996, and now John Woo has helmed Mission: Impossible 2. Well, it looks good on paper, anyway. Cruise, the co-producer of these movies as well as the star, seems to lose track of the reason he hired these directors in the first place. In scattered moments you get flashes of the old De Palma or Woo genius — not quite enough to sustain you, but just enough to frustrate you.
Mission: Impossible 2, I’m afraid, is yet another stubbornly incomprehensible spy thriller very much in the James Bond mold. In these movies, which are pointless to synopsize in any detail, the good guy must prevent the bad guy from acquiring something deadly or powerful. That’s it. That’s all they’re about. There is usually also an attractive woman, whom the good guy must also prevent the bad guy from acquiring, and sometimes she’s deadly or powerful. But not enough, of course, to shadow the hero. Oh, and there are stunts, and lots of meaningless running around, and lots more meaningless exposition about the meaning of all this meaninglessness, and yet more stunts.
Cruise’s superspy hero, Ethan Hunt, must stop evil renegade agent Dougray Scott before he can infect the population of Sydney, Australia with a lethal virus. The villain’s plan is to create a demand for the virus’ antidote, which he can then supply, for an immodest fee. Ethan sends his new lady love Thandie Newton, who was once involved with the villain, to go back to him so she can spy on him. Since Cruise and Newton have zero chemistry together, we’re not especially moved by Ethan’s turmoil and jealousy when his lover ends up back in his enemy’s arms.
Watching a cluttered, dawdling “adventure” like Mission: Impossible 2, you may flash back on the relatively trim and straightforward Indiana Jones movies, which had just as much globe-trotting and a plot identical to the one I described in the paragraph before last, but which also had pace and momentum. M:I2 founders and drags — the middle third is incredibly dull — and that’s a shocker coming from John Woo, who’s usually an artist of propulsive, balletic violence. In earlier movies, Woo’s patented slow-mo passages — Sam Peckinpah buffed to a gleaming shine — riveted our attention and forged beauty out of chaos. Here, Woo just seems to fall back on slow-mo whenever he gets bored, which apparently is often. The movie is never bad to look at — Woo knows where to put the camera — but it’s hollowly attractive. Even Woo’s signature dove is just a sad grace note here, a reminder of better films.
Tom Cruise may enjoy throwing himself into the sleek physicality of these movies, but it doesn’t do much for me. Ethan Hunt remains a cipher, a wind-up action figure who can do damn near anything short of flying. In the outlandish finale, he even does a little of that. The climax is admittedly a jolt of caffeine — it’s as if Woo were finally, finally being let out to play after being locked inside Robert Towne’s pedestrian script for two hours, and he cuts loose. The stunts and collisions here, like the best moments in De Palma’s film, get you laughing at their kinetic daffiness. But it’s too little, too late. Towards the end, some members of the audience didn’t even wait till fade-out to head for the aisle; others left silently when it was over, and the audience throughout the film, indeed, was mostly silent. Mission: Impossible 2 doesn’t give us a whooping good time; most of it feels static and self-indulgent. Cruise himself seems to be having a blast, kicking and whirling in the fresh air and sunshine; too bad he forgot to let the rest of us in on his fun.