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Beyond Bond 

*Mission: Impossible 2 (PG-13)
Paramount Pictures

Director John Woo's (Broken Arrow, Face/Off) hyper-boiled rendering of screenwriter Robert Towne's (Chinatown) razor-sharp script in Mission: Impossible 2 makes the Mission Impossible logo a potentially worthy rival to the James Bond cinema franchise. Woo keeps similarities to director Brian De Palma's 1996 Mission Impossible to a minimum in this very dissimilar sequel by incorporating his signature slow motion, ballet-of-bullets action sequences against the taut resolve of Tom Cruise's most ambitious action performance to date.

Cruise's current performance as undercover agent Ethan Hunt is virtually unrecognizable from the excessively smiling American emissary in De Palma's film. Where Cruise's former character resembled more of a clean-cut action stick figure going through a series of disconnected motions, the chiseled-faced actor emerges here as a hot-blooded, libido-fueled street fighter with a mind like a steel trap. Hunt's bristling physicality is articulated in every scene of the film as daredevil rock climber, bedroom seducer and hand-to-hand combat master. Much has been written about Cruise's insistence on performing many of his own stunts to the chagrin of Paramount studio execs and their insurance officers for good reason. The film's realism of danger allows it to operate on a higher level of believability and determination. There's no question that Cruise was born to have his unavoidably handsome aspect blown up to fantastic proportions on giant movie screens, but here Adonis meets Bruce Lee meets Steve McQueen. Like McQueen in The Great Escape, Cruise enjoys a thrilling chase sequence on a black Triumph motorcycle which Woo captures to exquisite effect.

Mission: Impossible 2's plot purposefully aligns itself closer to a James Bond film than to an extended version of the '60s television show as De Palma's film did. Rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott, Ever After) steals an extremely volatile German-made virus (called Chimera) to sell, along with its antidote, to a bio corporation for a huge sum of money and stock options so he can release the virus on the world and make even more money selling the antidote. Ambrose's big weakness is an uncontrollable lust for his comely ex-girlfriend and professional thief Nyah (Thandie Newton, Beloved). Ethan, too, falls for Nyah's charms before sending her back into the belly of the beast to live with Ambrose and help recover the Chimera virus.

Mission: Impossible 2 is a movie that revels in the seductiveness of masculine super action with all the bells and whistles of techno-gadgets, fast cars and explosions attached. It's more romantic than anything in a James Bond movie and boasts better Kung Fu scenes than The Matrix. As a sequel, M:I-2 links itself to the original with Ving Rhames (Out of Sight) returning as IMF agent Luther Strickell. Although Luther is stuck behind a laptop computer for most of the movie, Rhames graces the film with touches of humor underlying every line of his dialogue.

But the strongest aspect of the movie is Woo's love of the duel. Ethan and Nyah fall in love while racing on a winding mountain road in an Audi convertible for the lady and a Porsche for Cruise. The two soon-to-be-lovers smash into one another and spin around in a slow motion pas de deux that exposes their mutual need for extreme danger as the only prerequisite for love. Likewise, when Hunt and Ambrose collide in a mano a mano motorcycle collision that gives way to an all-out fist fight, flesh and bones are the final solution to global threat and personal freedom. John Woo's summer blockbuster is surely the most elegant and graceful example of cinema's technology advanced comeuppance so far.

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