Early on in Mission: Impossible 2 (or M:I-2, as the confident Paramount now calls it), hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) complains to his boss about his new assignment: "It's going to be difficult."
"It's not mission difficult, Mr. Hunt," the boss icily replies, "it's mission impossible. 'Difficult' should be a walk in the park." Similarly, making a sequel to a huge hit like the 1996 Mission: Impossible without having it turn into a complete redundancy -- that is, a thinly veiled remake -- may not be a walk in the park, but it's not impossible, either. And, for the most part, Cruise, director John Woo and screenwriter Robert Towne have succeeded.
M:I-2 is a quintessential summer movie. More to the point, it is, save a few flaws in the plot, a very good summer movie. It's yet one more bit of evidence that, in terms of savvy career management, Cruise is the new Clint Eastwood. (John Travolta, on the other hand, to judge by Battlefield Earth, is the new Burt Reynolds.) The endless shoot for Eyes Wide Shut may have eaten up a lot of Cruise's revenue-generating time, but working with Kubrick was a classy decision and hence a good long-term career move. M:I-2 has all the trappings of a classy project and, unlike Eyes Wide Shut, will reaffirm Cruise's box-office power.
For the first Mission: Impossible, Cruise, who also serves as producer, chose to hire Brian de Palma rather than the music-video hacks that his former producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun, Days of Thunder) likes to use -- people like Simon West (Con Air) and Michael Bay (Armageddon). It may have been no surprise to see the name of David Koepp (Jurassic Park) among the screenwriting credits, but also on board were Towne (Chinatown) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List).
Cruise brought back Towne to do the screenplay for the new film and signed up Woo, a distinctive stylist who is regarded by many as the greatest living action director. The result is part Woo, part Cruise/Towne, a hybrid that works well 90 percent of the time.
The film opens with a precredit setup sequence involving a research biochemist (Radé Sherbedgia) and a lethal virus, then proceeds to another setup sequence -- Hunt receiving his new assignment while rock-climbing in the middle of nowhere (this has been prominently displayed in the trailers and ads).
Hunt is instructed to include in his team a beautiful young thief (Thandie Newton). (Her name, Nyah Nordhoff Hall, appears to mark her as the unlikely issue of the co-authors of Mutiny on the Bounty.) Only after he has fallen in love with her does he find out why she's so essential: She is the ex-lover of Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), the renegade Impossible Mission Force operative who is planning to make a mint off the hideous virus. Hunt's superior (played by a very major star in an unbilled cameo) orders him to send Nyah not only into incredible jeopardy (which could have been predicted) but also into bed with Sean.
What's a top-secret-operative-in-love to do?
Well, for one take on the problem, you just have to hie yourself over to the video store and rent Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 Notorious, from which this plot concept is lifted wholesale. Remember? Cary Grant recruits disreputable Ingrid Bergman, falls in love with her and then discovers that her assignment is to move in with Nazi ex-admirer Claude Rains? There are so many blatant points of similarity, including at least two specific early scenes -- Nyah driving like a lunatic and Hunt revealing her mission to her while out on a balcony -- that one has to assume outright homage rather than mere theft. (There is also a small debt to North by Northwest.) Still, an acknowledgment of the source material would have been nice. Of course, stylistically, this isn't Notorious at all. It's basically Notorious refracted through four decades of James Bond films and then executed with Woo's trademark visuals.
That said, those expecting a repetition of Woo's late Hong Kong masterpieces, with their stylish gun battles, should be warned: Although the film is full of action, the first shootout doesn't occur until more than halfway through. Most of the action scenes before that revolve around cars, motorcycles, bombs -- everything but guns.
Woo stages, shoots and edits some of these bits with his usual combination of regular-speed footage intercut with various degrees of slow-motion, but they don't always bring out his best, which depends on the gracefulness of human movement ... or at least a heightened simulation of that gracefulness. It's hard to infuse explosions and speeding vehicles with the kind of beautiful motion that Woo brought to his Hong Kong shootouts.
In fact, the most satisfying moments in the first half aren't the big action bits but the shots of Hunt first spotting Nyah and their subsequent "meet cute" in the middle of a robbery. Woo directs this material very much like a dance, with the camera and the performers choreographed together into passionate movement. Woo's technique has always had emotional undercurrents; in this sequence, the emotions are right at the surface.
Although the filmmakers have avoided the tendency to simply clone the first film, they have reprised its most memorable set-piece -- Hunt's dangling break-in of a well-protected lab. For the second go-around, they simply take the original concept and multiply its physical dimensions by 10. It's pleasingly ridiculous -- and exciting, to boot.
After that sequence, the film continues to rely heavily on car and motorcycle chases but adds some very nicely staged hand-to-hand -- or (perhaps more accurately, given the style of the combat) foot-to-foot -- fight scenes.
Although the emotional part of the plot is satisfying, and the action scenes -- accompanied by the usual cranked-up multitrack music and effects -- are exciting, there is still the issue of plot mechanics. Even more than its predecessor, M:I-2's story relies on many implausible motivations and cheap sci-fi gimmicks. One can give Towne points for at least trying to explain most of the implausibilities rather than simply assuming that no one will care, but his explanations aren't very convincing. On a moment's reflection, you realize that the reasons that Ambrose and Hunt do certain things either make no sense or are so artificially contrived as to irritate.
The film also indulges in the first film's worst device -- the perfect masks that were an excuse for the cheapest sort of identity reversal. "I look like X, but really" -- rrrrrippppp -- "I'm Y!" The final use of this nonsensical gimmick completely defies logic, even if you suspend disbelief long enough to accept the gimmick itself.
Be forewarned: Abandon all hopes of common sense and enter the theater with high expectations for visceral entertainment. You won't be disappointed.
Opens May 24.