Mission Impossible revisited: John Woo’s Mission Impossible II

Mission Impossible II
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John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II might not be the most loved of the series, but it’s got quite a lot worth talking about…


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Mission: Impossible II is a film that remains eternally fascinating to me, particularly as the demonstrable nadir of, otherwise, one of cinema’s most consistently entertaining blockbuster franchises.

The better entries of the Tom Cruise-led modern adaptation of Bruce Geller’s iconic 1960s espionage TV series are easier to write about, in many respects. You have the Euro-centric, Hitchcockian suspense and classic retro thrills of Brian De Palma’s first 1996 take on the material, and once J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot get their hands on the property from 2006’s Mission Impossible III onwards, the franchise becomes a much slicker fusion of all-American spy thrills, combining modern technology, action spectacle and ‘spy-fi’ theatrics.

John Woo’s MI2 is the clear, harder to define aberration. In a way, it also remains the most interesting.

To say I was looking forward to Mission: Impossible II back in 2000 would be a massive understatement. De Palma’s Mission Impossible arrived when I was 14, smack bang in the middle of the golden 90s years of high concept blockbuster action movies which shaped my formative adoration of cinema – including Face/Off, which alongside Broken Arrow brought Woo to the United States from the native Hong Kong where he had made his name as an exciting auteur of action cinema thanks to pictures such as The Killer and Hard Boiled (which I only saw many many years later). Though Mission: Impossible II was undoubtedly going to be a different beast to the previous film, given the enormous gulf in style between their two directors, I couldn’t wait. 18 years old, hungry for movies, schooled in the action genre, my soul was prepared.

Then I watched it…

For years, I could not go back to Mission Impossible II. The crushing disappointment I felt when I left the cinema back in 2000, on the eve of heading away to University and the next chapter in my life, remained palpable. I didn’t like it not because it was different from the first one, but rather because it had none of the intrigue or the artistry of that movie. The romance was tired and saccharine, not to mention unconvincing. Cruise was painfully uncool with his floppy hair and black leather jacket, riding big motorcycles in shades like some kind of cross between James Dean and a Hell’s Angel. The plot, involving a twin bio-virus and its cure, was – compared to the twisty double-dealing of De Palma’s film – nothing short of threadbare. Even the travelogue, with the picture taking place primarily in Australia, felt bland. None of it felt like a natural continuation of the Mission Impossible franchise.

Here, of course, was my first mistake, and why over time I have grown increasingly more intrigued by John Woo’s sequel. While, in all honesty, some of my initial impressions haven’t changed since that first viewing, subsequent glances at the material have shown me there is artistry in Mission: Impossible II. There is craft. There is, even, a touch of myth-making. Though it is frequently buried by the style, substance does exist. It just takes too much time to find.

Mission: Impossible II

Around this time, Hollywood seemed a little bit obsessed with attempting to create their own American spy hero. Just a couple of years after MI2 came XXX, starring Vin Diesel off the back of his success with The Fast and the Furious and Pitch Black, as Xander Cage, an extreme sports legend recruited as a spy for the National Security Agency.

Though they are very different films in terms of narrative, you can see similarities between MI2 and something like XXX; both their heroes are men capable of feats beyond the limits of human endurance, whether it’s Cage’s snowboarding or Hunt’s propensity to spend his vacations climbing mountains in Utah without any safety equipment.

Both Hunt and Cage have a slick, at times perhaps misplaced confidence in themselves; their characters love the use of masculine machinery to complete their missions; and they are quite prepared to thumb their nose at authority when they need to.

Who does all of this sound like? Bond. Only Bond. Mission: Impossible II very much attempts to establish Ethan Hunt as an American take on the James Bond myth and legend; the swaggering, dangerous agent travelling to exotic locales, bedding glamorous femme fatales, while stopping maniacal bad guys from unleashing a terrible weapon of mass destruction upon the world.

Compare this to the first Mission and we’re a world away in sensibility; De Palma may have framed the picture around Hunt, but even with the destruction of his team, at no point can Hunt successfully expose Phelps’ plan without the ramshackle team of mercenaries he then assembles to help clear his name. MI2 brings back Ving Rhames’ popular Luther Stickell (the only point of continuity outside of Cruise in every film to date) but he’s even more incidental to the narrative than he was in the previous film.

Mission: Impossible II doesn’t even really need Ethan to be part of the IMF – that factor feels merely a token of the setup to the narrative, when in De Palma’s movie, the series that preceded it, and indeed the films beyond this one, it plays a part or is crucial. The whole narrative of that first film revolves around protecting deep cover IMF agents under threat of exposure – Phelps, in making money and sailing off into the sunset, simultaneously wants to collapse the very institution which he feels betrayed him once the Cold War was over. Hunt’s actions are about protecting the bigger picture in the previous film, whereas in MI2 the stakes are equivalent to a Bond movie of old – crazed bad guy, terrible weapon, general worldwide threat, and one only Hunt can possibly stop. MI2’s bad guy, Sean Ambrose, is even a former IMF agent, a ‘fallen angel’ if you will, but this too feels almost incidental in his plan to make money and… well, that’s it.

Previously: Revisiting Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible

So if Mission: Impossible II attempts to divorce the concept from the 60’s team-ethic and complex web of subterfuge, transforming Hunt into a super-heroic action man who is almost indestructible in the manner of pre-Daniel Craig James Bond, what does that say about the action genre at the time? Was there a general disdain at the turn of the millennium when it came to honouring the source material of a concept such as Mission Impossible? Did the 80s and 90s propensity for high concept blockbusters featuring heroes with sharp one-liners who could survive a hail of bullets lead directly to a film such as MI2, a film which seems to go out of its way not just to ignore the legacy of the original series, but the film that directly preceded it?

Legendary Hollywood screenwriter Robert Towne, writer of such celebrated crime pictures like Chinatown, and who also contributed to the screenplay for De Palma’s movie, took on the story established by Brannon Braga & Ronald D. Moore (veterans of the Star Trek franchise, making them an odd fit for the sexy slickness of MI), but he discussed how he had to work around an established precept which could explain a level of putting the ‘cart before the horse’ in how MI:2 was constructed:

It was an interesting problem because by the time I got involved, there were certain action pieces around which the story had to be written, or, at the very least, the story couldn’t interfere with the action pieces [laughs]. These scenes, through the storytelling process, had become solidified in John Woo’s mind. I won’t say those sequences had a life of their own but they were there, and had been developed. In a movie like Mission, as in all of John’s movies, his action sequences are carefully choreographed. They were there. And the story, at the point that I came along, was not there to support the action. So what it really came down to is somebody saying, “These are the action sequences that we’ve got. How about telling the story?” That’s unusual. That was the most challenging thing about it: starting with the action sequences and using them to tell the story.

In fairness, these are not issues that fall at the feet of Towne, Braga or Moore when it comes to assigning blame as to why Mission: Impossible II’s script is, unquestionably, its biggest failing. Structurally, the picture appears geared around three or four set pieces – Hunt’s free-climb at the beginning, his balletic Spanish car chase with Thandiwe Newton’s leading lady Nyah Nordoff-Hall, the break-in of the Biocyte building in Sydney to recover the Chimera virus sample, and finally the climactic motorbike chase through the outskirts of Sydney primarily between Hunt and Ambrose. While the Utah climb sequence is all Cruise, and Cruise himself as usual insisted on doing many of his own stunts (even pulling his shoulder during the free jump), the rest are Woo all over in their construction and, as Towne puts it, choreography.

This is where I find myself somewhat torn when it comes to Mission: Impossible II, because some of these sequences are really quite well staged. The post-credits sequence in Seville captures an elegant, romantic Spanish glamour as Ethan and Nyah meet, while particularly the motorbike chase at the climax is full of roaring engines, languorous camera angles which capture the mechanical mayhem, and dozens of slow, repeating tracking shots (often with Woo’s staple white doves flying around) which allow him to pore over the staging. Coupled with Hans Zimmer’s overwrought, operatic score (joined again by Gladiator vocal alum Lisa Gerrard), the whole thing is infused with an attempted gravitas which belies the rather pulpy action cinema roots. Woo is shooting for deeper, mythic subtext which is to be admired, even if he never reaches it.

Mission: Impossible II

Woo is enormously interested in duality. You can see this all over Face/Off, which struck a chord by flipping the traditionally manic Nicolas Cage with the previously all-American and heroic John Travolta, and having them switch from hero to villain through the premise of surgery swapping each other’s faces (Woo had already proved Travolta could do villainous with his previous film Broken Arrow a year earlier).

Woo brings a lot of those ideas and themes into the Mission Impossible franchise – the idea that Ambrose turned to the dark side and was formerly an IMF agent, and if not friend then at least colleague of Hunt’s; the positioning of both men as two sides of the same coin, both replete with a similar set of skills and abilities; plus, of course, the conceit of the masks which allows Ambrose to first pose as Hunt, and later Hunt to pose as Ambrose’s henchman. Woo is obsessed in this contrast throughout the film.

This duality even translates into the McGuffin of MI2. Where the first film had the so-called ‘NOC List’ of undercover agents, or MI3 has the mysterious ‘Rabbit’s Foot’, then MI2 has a deadly biological virus called ‘Chimera’, and its vaccine ‘Bellerophon’. Rade Sherbedgia’s ill-fated scientist Dr. Nekhorvich who created the twin bio-weapons describes them in the same terms Woo attempts to draw between Hunt and Ambrose. “Every search for a hero must begin with something that every hero requires: a villain.” This is really quite Campbellian in its mythic deconstruction, drawing parallels between the duality in good/evil, Hunt/Ambrose, by naming the virus (villain) and vaccine (cure) after ancient Greek mythological constructs.

The first mention of Chimera, known in Greek myth as a great, hybrid monster constructed of multiple animal parts, and Bellerophon, the champion hero who slays the beast, go as far back as Homer’s legendary narrative The Iliad. In the mythic structure of Mission Impossible II, Ambrose isn’t the Chimera (or Chimaera) but rather to some degree fits the mythology type of Proteus, the King whose wife, Anteia, wishes to ‘lie’ with Bellerophon. If Ambrose is Proteus, and Hunt is of course Bellerophon, then arguably Nyah is the fair Anteia, and at first she does potentially fit the bill of a femme fatale capable of playing both men off one another – given her past sexual history with Ambrose, which is precisely the reason IMF deploy her as bait to lure Ambrose out. Anthony Hopkins, in his cameo as IMF director Swanbeck (unnamed on screen), rather creepily and with a certain vein of sexism, suggests Nyah is capable of such deception because “to go to bed with a man and lie to him, she’s a woman, she has all the training she needs”. Yuck, Tony. Yuck.

The point is that Woo attempts to draw out this mythic symbolism, with these connections right back to the Iliad and Greek myth, in how he positions Hunt & Ambrose as diametrically opposing forces swirling around the power and passion of a woman. The virus, which is not just the symbolic Chimera but the literal one—as MI2 wants us to very clearly understand the allegory–in a way is almost incidental. The central core of the story revolves around these dual figures—the hero and the villain—circling around the ‘prize’ in Nyah. She could almost be Helen of Troy in another classical example, with Hunt as Paris stealing her away from king Agamemnon. It’s an archetypal idea Mission: Impossible II is attempting to reach but, in reality, it simply fails to get there. This, in part, is what I find so fascinating about the film.

Though the entirety of the Mission Impossible franchise is heightened fantasy, which at various points has worked to update the kitsch, 1960s spy aesthetic for a modern audience, Mission Impossible II is the picture which, more than any of the rest, feels particularly designed to be a mythic, archetypal fantasy about broader Campbellian themes and concepts. John Woo, aside from throwing in all of his particular directorial quirks and trademarks into the pot, takes the script Robert Towne delivered after a multitude of drafts from Braga/Moore, and even celebrated screenwriters such as Michael Tonkin and William Goldman, and crafts a deeply flawed but aspiring picture which challenges, only in its second film, what audiences should expect from Mission Impossible.

Here’s the crucial fact about Mission Impossible II, and perhaps the key to how I can now start to appreciate it in intent, even if it will always remain a demonstrably flawed film: it is a very clear, simplistic, archetypal, male heroic fantasy narrative.

On those terms, with the intent of Woo in bringing forth the duality in the hero and villain (both functionally and biologically, given the virus and its cure), and the underlying attempts to transform Hunt and market him as a mythic American fantasy hero, a Bond for the land of the free, then MI2 becomes easier to translate. It becomes less of an aberration and more of a curiosity. It becomes a film, despite an often poor, cringeworthy script and a lifeless three-way romance which utterly robs Newton’s Nyah of any of the agency she had at the beginning of the story, which can be understood and appreciated, if not exactly admired, for what collectively Cruise and Woo in particular were trying to do.

Oh, and did you know many people see it as a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious? Go figure.

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