John Woo movies may be famous for their over-the-top action sequences, but what really makes them work is the way he focuses on the intense personal rivalry between his main characters. In films as varied as the Hong Kong classic The Killer and the Hollywood hit Face/Off, it’s the battle of wills between cop and criminal, and the spiritual struggle within the protagonists, that drives the gun battles and the slow-motion pyrotechnics. Like those other films, Windtalkers — a World War II movie about Navajo code talkers and their uneasy relationship with their fellow marines — is also about a conflicted friendship and a man who wrestles with his conscience. But this time, the violence takes place on such a grand scale that it dwarfs the characters, who are, after all, just cogs in a larger military machine.
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.