There comes a moment in Mission: Impossible II when Ethan Hunt, the daredevil superspy played by Tom Cruise, must make a choice, and the scene speaks volumes about the film’s narrative logic. Hunt, after kicking and punching his opponent and performing all sorts of suspiciously fancy martial-arts stunts, grabs the knife that his opponent has just brandished. The opponent, now unarmed, dares Hunt to finish him off quickly. Somewhere, a clock is ticking, and Hunt knows that he is badly needed elsewhere. What does Hunt do? Why, he throws the knife back, of course, and goes right back to kicking and punching.
But who’s complaining? This is, after all, a John Woo movie, and if style must trump common sense, then so be it. Hiring Woo to oversee the latest installment in this franchise was an inspired move. The people in this film are constantly impersonating each other — the removal of impossibly lifelike masks is a recurring motif — and who better to direct this tale of tangled identities than the man who made Face/Off? But unlike that earlier film, which had the offbeat charisma of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage and a surprisingly poignant script, Mission: Impossible II is little more than an excuse for Tom Cruise to flaunt a new set of action moves.
While the story is still kind of dumb, it’s at least nowhere near as confusing as the first film was. It has something to do with a pharmaceutical company, whose greedy boss (The General’s Brendan Gleeson) has overseen the creation of a sort of wonder cure for the flu. In order to test this cure, and perhaps create a market for it, the company has also created a monster virus that can kill people in hours. (Curiously, nobody asks whether the simultaneous arrival of a new disease and its cure might seem like too big of a coincidence.)
Just to make things worse, a scientist carrying the virus and its antidote is killed, and his baggage stolen, before the opening credits finish rolling. (The scientist is played by Cruise’s Eyes Wide Shut co-star Rade Serbedzija, a Croatian actor who is almost unrecognizable with his newer, shorter haircut.) The thieves are led by Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), a former government agent and an understudy of Hunt’s who has gone into business for himself as a bad guy who thinks nothing of wiping out an airplane full of civilians. You may recall the chief villain in the last film turned out to be Hunt’s former boss, Jim Phelps. The folks at Mission: Impossible headquarters really should pay their employees better.
Hunt’s new boss (Anthony Hopkins, in a brief cameo) tells him their best chance for success is to convince one of Ambrose’s ex-girlfriends, a thief named Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Beloved’s Thandie Newton), to resume their relationship and find out where Ambrose is hiding the germs. There’s one snag, though: Hunt and Nyah have already met and fallen in love, following a ludicrous car chase in which Hunt almost pushed Nyah off a cliff.
This dangerous love triangle is supposed to give the film some sort of romantic tension, but the script, written by Robert Towne (Chinatown) from a story by Star Trek stalwarts Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, leaves the characters so sketchy that it’s difficult to care. Woo, apparently determined to make the most violent PG-13 film you ever saw, compensates by filling the screen with his usual slow-motion fight scenes, religious images and birds, lots of birds. If you’re looking for two hours of eye candy, you could certainly do worse. But if you want more than grenades and gunfire, you’ll have to wait for some other film.
2.5 stars (out of 5)
— A version of this review was first published in the Vancouver Courier.