Saturday 6 June 2020

Mission Impossible II at 20 – Misguided or Just Misunderstood?

Twenty years ago this month, Tom Cruise and John Woo were dominating the box office with their kinetic and wild take on Mission Impossible. Somewhat maligned as the ugly duckling following a string of superior sequels, I thought it was about time that we set the record straight, and appreciated Mission Impossible II for what it really is – wildly misunderstood.

It is the summer of 2000. The likes of Eminem, Matchbox Twenty and Britney Spears are riding high in the charts, Y2K panic is already a distant memory and ‘Brennifer’ are the hottest couple in Tinseltown. And in May, Mission Impossible II makes its bow in cinemas across the world, with a floppy-haired Tom Cruise in the lead role, four years on from the first film reviving a 60s TV classic.

It turned out to be the smash of the summer. It had the highest debut weekend of the year, and broke Scream 3’s record for widest release ever, playing in more than 3600 theatres across the US. Here in Australia, it sat atop the box office for three weeks, and pipped Ridley Scott's Gladiator to the highest single weekend gross of the year.

Tom Cruise filming on location
in Sydney.
By the end of its theatrical run, Mission Impossible II had earned upward of $500 million worldwide, far and away the biggest earner at the box office that year, ahead of Gladiator, Cast Away and What Women Want (remember when every major blockbuster wasn't a Disney remake or Marvel film?).

However, critical praise was harder to come by than box office receipts, with the film copping heat for its dizzying action and thin plot. In the intervening years, and particularly since the Mission Impossible series has gone from strength to strength under the stewardship of JJ Abrams, Brad Bird and especially Christopher McQuarrie, John Woo’s sequel has become the maligned step-child of this six-part spy saga. The weird and uneasy teen that was still going through some growing pains, complete with its wraparound sunglasses, mop of hair and squealing Limp Bizkit soundtrack.

To that criticism I say: phooey. Woo’s film is a raucous and rowdy trip that recalls a time when blockbuster films could still be weird, outlandish or garish (i.e. the late 90s and early 00s).

There’s an overabundance of slow motion, ludicrous plot devices and next to no character development, but Woo’s film excels not in spite of its silliness, but thanks to it. It has everything the spy genre has to offer; rubber masks, deadly viruses, motorcycle chases, gun-fu, flocks of doves – what’s not to love? It’s an off-the-wall mishmash of ideas and cultures, distilled into a slick spy romp set in…Sydney (seriously).

The Mission Impossible series was founded on this idea that filmmakers would dip in, have a crack and dip out. Since 1996, five filmmakers have brought something new and interesting to the series; from Bird’s dizzying IMAX action spectacle in Ghost Protocol to McQuarrie’s tight storytelling in Rogue Nation and Fallout.

John Woo and Tom Cruise behind-the-scenes of Mission Impossible II.
Woo brought panache and a sense of poetry to Mission Impossible II’s kinetic action set pieces, which are told through electrifying colour, stylised editing and constantly escalating stakes that reveal the Hong Kong filmmaker’s balletic wuxia roots.

The colours – particularly vivid and rich on the Blu-ray copy I was watching – leap from the screen. Filmed in Broken Hill and around Port Jackson Bay, the outback soil is a rich, rusty orange and the ocean is a sparkling blue – a far cry from the washed-out and drab colour palettes that so many modern blockbusters paint with.

Cruise – currently on something of a hot streak, having worked with both Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson in the two years prior – is peak action hero here. Still a huge draw for audiences, not yet a scientology nutjob, Mission Impossible II can also be seen as a watershed moment for the star, signalling the moment that box-office domination and daring-do heroes (Minority Report, War of the Worlds, The Last Samurai) took precedence over earlier auteur-driven introspective work.

Action had always been in Cruise's wheelhouse, from the machoism of Top Gun to the fuel-soaked Days of Thunder. But Mission Impossible II is where headline-grabbing stuntwork and dedication to thrilling action became the star's modus operandi. The Arizona free climbing sequence where we're reintroduced to Ethan Hunt might pale in comparison to some of Cruise's later Mission Impossible stunts, but it tees up the idea that this is a bonafide 'movie star' who talks the talk that would carry over into Cruise's later career.

For all its gleeful ‘guilty pleasure’ elements, there are others that aren't as strong or as entertaining. Some of the casting choices are, questionable, to say the least; Anthony Hopkins feels out of place in this spy-vs-spy world, while Dougray Scott’s villain Sean Ambrose lacks malice. But, in something of a cinematic ‘sliding doors’ moment, we have Scott’s miscasting to thank for Hugh Jackman’s iconic Wolverine, with the former turning down the role in order to instead star in Mission Impossible II.

Thandie Newton as Nyah Hall.
Therefore, it falls to British actress Thandie Newton to trade dramatic punches with Cruise, and frankly she steals the show and then some – a cat burglar who is pulled into a biochemistry conspiracy, she’s granted actual agency and an arc that makes her the envy of disposable Bond girls everywhere. 

Looking back at Mission Impossible II illustrates just how tame and restrained most modern tentpole films are by comparison (McQuarrie's recent Mission Impossible entries aside, obviously). There's no murky third act CGI mess to sit through; Woo prefers choreographed action that is exciting and frenetic, but still easy to follow. 

It's silly, but it's never boring – which is more than be said for Cruise's derivative The Mummy reboot or lacklustre Jack Reacher sequel. At least it's a film with an identity of its own and a filmmaker's fingerprints all over it – something most Marvel films can't attest to. Maligned it may be, but Mission Impossible II – for all its faults – is colourful, chock-a-block with creativity and well worth another look.

Mission Impossible II is streaming on Netflix Australia and Stan.

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