Mission: Impossible II (2000)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #62

M:I-2

Also Known As: M:i-2

Country: USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 123 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 24th May 2000 (USA)
UK Release: 7th July 2000
First Seen: cinema, July 2000

Stars
Tom Cruise (Top Gun, Jack Reacher)
Dougray Scott (Ever After: A Cinderella Story, Enigma)
Thandie Newton (Besieged, Crash)
Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Dawn of the Dead)

Director
John Woo (Hard Boiled, Face/Off)

Screenwriter
Robert Towne (yes, the author of The Most Perfect Screenplay Ever™, Chinatown)

Story by
Ronald D. Moore (Star Trek: First Contact, Battlestar Galactica)
Brannon Braga (Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Enterprise)

Based on
Mission: Impossible, a TV series created by Bruce Geller.

The Story
When rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose steals every sample of Bellerophon, the only cure to deadly man-made virus Chimera, his former colleague Ethan Hunt is assigned to get it back. His team includes Nyah Nordoff-Hall, Ambrose’s former lover, who Hunt must send undercover in the villain’s operation. Ambrose plans to blackmail Biocyte, the company behind Chimera, and potentially unleash the virus on the world — unless Hunt & co can destroy it first.

Our Heroes
Daredevil IMF agent Ethan Hunt is back, this time with floppy hair! Basically a one-man team, the film nonetheless nods to Mission: Impossible’s original team-based format by having him recruit thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall and his computer expert chum from the first film, Luther Stickell. There’s also pilot Billy Baird, but I’d completely forgotten about him until I looked up a plot summary.

Our Villain
A former IMF agent gone bad, Sean Ambrose therefore has access to some of the same skills and tech as Hunt, like those (basically magic) masks. Not so fond of dangling from ventilation shafts, though.

Best Supporting Character
For some reason Richard Roxburgh has always stuck in my mind as Ambrose’s South African henchman, Stamp. It was the start of a very successful few years for Roxburgh, in which he had leading roles in high-profile movies like Moulin Rouge, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Van Helsing, playing Dracula in the latter, and was also Sherlock Holmes in a major BBC adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I guess the lack of critical success that greeted most of those is why he’s somewhat fallen off the radar since.

Memorable Quote
“Mr. Hunt, this isn’t mission difficult, it’s mission impossible. ‘Difficult’ should be a walk in the park for you.” — Swanbeck

Memorable Scene
At the sale of the cure, Ambrose’s henchman, Stamp, captures Hunt and drags him before his boss. As Ambrose gloats, Hunt can only mumble in protest because Stamp broke his jaw. With great glee, Ambrose unloads his gun into Hunt… and only then spots his little finger, which is missing its tip — just like Ambrose did to punish Stamp earlier. He approaches Hunt and pulls his face off to reveal the real Stamp, his mouth taped shut. Meanwhile, ‘Stamp’ is running off with the cure, and as the Mission: Impossible theme surges on to the soundtrack he whips his mask off to reveal (of course) Hunt. #owned.

Memorable Music
The rock version of the main theme, composed by Hans Zimmer and also turned into a song (a song! with lyrics!) by Limp Bizkit, was ever so cool at the time, at least to my teenage ears (I loved the entire soundtrack, actually). It all sounds terribly dated and turn-of-the-millennium now, but hey, that’s music and the ravages of time for you.

Technical Wizardry
For the much-trailed close-up shot where Ambrose nearly shoves a knife in Hunt’s eye, Tom Cruise — in a typical daredevil move — insisted a real knife be used and that it stopped just a quarter-inch from his eyeball. To achieve it with some degree of safety, that knife was attached to a cable that was carefully measured to ensure it wouldn’t, you know, half-blind a major movie star.

Letting the Side Down
“All of it!” Oh, hush, you.

Making of
John Woo’s final cut was 3½ hours long. The studio balked at this (understandably!) and ordered a final length of no more than 2 hours. According to IMDb’s trivia, “this could explain why there are so many plot holes and continuity errors in the theatrical cut.” I’ve never noticed those, personally, but now I’d be fascinated to see that longer version. Considering it’s 16 years later and the film isn’t well liked, I guess we’ll never get the chance.

Previously on…
Part of the James Bond-provoked spy-fi craze of the ’60s, the original Mission: Impossible TV series ran for seven seasons, was revived for two more at the end of the the ’80s, and then relaunched as a Tom Cruise film franchise in ’96. (That film narrowly missed out on a place here.)

Next time…
To date, three more sequels, with a sixth (at least) in development. The third also missed out on inclusion here, while the fourth and fifth are part of 100 Films.

Awards
2 Razzie nominations (Worst Supporting Actress (Thandie Newton), Worst Remake or Sequel)
2 MTV Movie Awards (Male Performance (Tom Cruise), Action Sequence (the motorcycle chase))
2 Teen Choice Awards nominations (including Wipeout Scene of the Summer)
[Thandie Newton was also nominated for Female Newcomer at the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards, British Actress at the Empire Awards, and Supporting Actress at the Image Awards. Take that, Razzie!]

What the Critics Said
“The first Mission: Impossible (1996) had a plot no one understood. Mission: Impossible 2 has a plot you don’t need to understand. It’s been cobbled together by the expert Hollywood script doctor Robert Towne out of elements of other movies, notably Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) from which he takes the idea that the hero first falls in love with the heroine, then heartlessly assigns her to resume an old affair with an ex-lover in order to spy on his devious plans. […] If the first movie was entertaining as sound, fury and movement, this one is more evolved, more confident, more sure-footed in the way it marries minimal character development to seamless action.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Score: 57%

What the Public Say
“compared to the wildly complicated and almost infuriatingly labyrinthine plot of DePalma’s Mission: Impossible it seems like nothing is happening in M:I-2, but the plot here is actually pretty top-notch. […] what I once considered emotionally unsatisfying and intellectually sub-par now seems kind of fascinating. I still tend to not like plots that revolve around a man-made disease as a MacGuffin — I have no idea why, but they always seem lazy to me — but the Cruise/Newton/Scott love triangle holds some very honest beats […] Scott plays a very interesting, unique kind of villain, one I can’t entirely explain. But I think he succeeds in humanizing somebody who is written to be despicable. Scott’s tearful intensity when he learns of Thandie’s betrayal is almost sympathetic.” — Marcus Gorman, 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective

How M:I-2 Makes More Sense If You Consider It In a Different Context
“Fully asserting the series reboot mantra, M:I-2 eschews the original’s ethos in favour of […] traditional, near self-parodic Woo bombast (not enough for some fans, but there’s set pieces here that are among his very best). It’s often dopey, but then, to be fair, so are a lot of Hong Kong action films that don’t tend to get flak for that attribute, including Woo’s own action masterpieces made there. Fifteen years on and three more sequels later, it’s curious to observe how Woo’s film is even less like a traditional Hollywood action blockbuster than De Palma’s.” — Josh Slater-Williams, Vague Visages (the full piece has more analysis in this vein)

Verdict

M:i-2, as we used to call it, is pretty much everyone’s least-favourite Mission movie, a place only cemented by the two excellent instalments that have been released during this blog’s lifetime. To be honest, I’ve never really been sure why. It’s very much a John Woo movie, all overblown action and melodramatic stakes, and I’d be tempted to say that turns people off were it not for the love Face/Off receives. Personally I like his style, and I always thought it neat that the Mission series aimed to avoid having a “house style” by hiring distinctive directors for each instalment (a plan that went out the window almost as soon as it began thanks to tapping the bland J.J. Abrams for the third one, but hey-ho). For my money, M:I-2 has a strong storyline (as action-thrillers go), a threatening villain (particularly with his IMF-recruited ex-girlfriend undercover in his operation), and entertaining action sequences. For its genre, what more do you want?

#63 will be about… truth, beauty, freedom, love.

Last Passenger (2013)

2015 #6
Omid Nooshin | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

Last PassengerIf you’ve ever found a late-night train commute dull, this single-location thriller may make you rethink any complaints. Half-a-dozen people travelling from London to Tunbridge Wells find their train speeding out of control. It’s up to them to discover what’s happening and how to stop it.

Starting as character-driven slow-burn, but building to suitable levels of adrenaline-generation, some of the characters may be a little generic, but then it’s a genre movie. Anyone after answers to why this is happening will be disappointed, but that’s not the point; indeed, it’s refreshing to leave the villain unexplored.

An effective thrillride (literally).

4 out of 5

Ripley’s Game (2002)

2009 #67
Liliana Cavani | 106 mins | TV | 15 / R

Ripley's GameMatt Damon is back as… Oh, wait, no he isn’t — he’s turned into John Malkovich.

Not quite — there’s no reasonable way Ripley’s Game can be considered a sequel to Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley. Though it’s adapted from a later novel in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series (previously filmed as the Dennis Hopper-starring The American Friend, incidentally), the action is relocated to the present day, and it’d be a pretty hard sell to believe Matt Damon would grow up to be John Malkovich.

Despite the acclaim of Minghella’s effort just three years earlier, and a cast that includes recognisable faces such as a Ray Winstone, Dougray Scott and Lena Headey alongside Malkovich, Ripley’s Game snuck out with barely anyone noticing, including going straight to TV in the US. There are surely reasons for this, reports of a problematic shoot probably among them, but the neglect is undeserved. In 2006, Roger Ebert saw fit to include it in his Great Movies list, though other critics are less favourable (the Radio Times, for one handy example, rate it just three out of five). While Ebert is in my opinion overselling the film by including it in a list of the best films ever made ever, it’s certainly an above average, consummately made, and constantly entertaining Euro-thriller.

Perhaps the difference in opinion about the film stems from one, arguably crucial, sticking point: the Radio Times criticises the humour included in the murders and thriller sections, viewing it as a failure of director Liliana Cavani; conversely, Ebert approves of it, praising them as appearing somewhere “between a massacre and the Marx Brothers”. There’s undoubtedly more to the diverging opinions than this, but it’s at least emblematic. I’m inclined to agree with Ebert: these sequences do have tension — not the most one’s ever experienced in a thriller, but enough — but they marry the humour to it, leaving you chuckling on the edge of your seat.

For the most part the story keeps moving, twisting and turning in sometimes unexpected directions. Other films would happily take the first half-hour or so of this and stretch it to a whole feature, but screenwriters Charles McKeown and Cavani — adapting from Highsmith’s novel, of course, so the credit lies with her — take the premise further and in new directions. It’s not flawless, with the climax by far the biggest let down: Ripley and Trevanny hole up in the former’s villa, preparing for a veritable war as Ripley anticipates goodness-knows how many men to turn up. When it’s only two, it seems more believable than a whole army of mafia goons descending on the relatively insignificant pair, but it’s also distinctly anticlimactic after the hype. Still, at least the story has a final twist up its sleeve.

Malkovich may be a fairly respected actor, but to me he’s always seemed detached, flat, or mannered — often all three. Here, he’s still all three, but it suits Ripley’s unusual character down to the ground. His dry wit and incessant matter-of-fact delivery craft a quietly sinister, stalking nature, aiding the character’s believable unpredictability — that is to say, you’re never certain what he’s going to do next, but when he does it’s not surprising. I’ve never read a Ripley novel (there are five) nor seen another Ripley film (there are four), but Malkovich’s performance fits so perfectly I have little doubt this is precisely how Ripley should be played.

Among the rest of the cast, Ray Winstone is landed with a role he could play in his sleep, Lena Headey is perfectly fine as an unremarkable wife, and Scot Dougray Scott plays a none-more-plummy Brit. Unfortunately this accent sometimes seems to be the main focus of his performance, and it occasionally falters when he gets highly emotional, but it’s not really a problem… though it is rather odd to hear if you’re familiar with how he normally sounds. His character, Trevanny, is primarily a pawn in Ripley’s titular amusement, leaving Scott with only a passing hint of the character arc with which the role could have been gifted.

As noted earlier, there are numerous tales of problems on set, not least the multinational cast coping with a multinational crew in multiple nations, culminating in Cavani leaving towards the end of shooting and directorial duties being fulfilled by Malkovich. But as many have noted before, happy sets can produce dreadful movies and unhappy sets masterpieces, and while I don’t quite share the view that Ripley’s Game is entirely the latter, it certainly errs more in that direction than the other.

4 out of 5