Mission: Impossible II (2000)
Welcome to the Overlooked Hotel, where guests are invited to disagree with the conventional wisdom and re-evaluate the underappreciated.
Not many films cop it the way Mission: Impossible II does. M:I-2 (that’s what they put on the posters, always backed by flames) has the dubious honour of representing to many the very worst of John Woo, Tom Cruise, the Mission: Impossible franchise, and everything the turn of the century stood for. Coming off the wildly successful Face/Off, M:I-2 marked the beginning of a period that found Woo falling out of favour with critics and audiences, and eventually led to his leaving Hollywood. But that’s all bullshit. Mission: Impossible II is the best.
Shot during the halcyon days of Fox Studios Australia (the same era that gave us The Matrix), M:I-2 made the most of its “down under” setting (g’day!), opening on the Opera House and closing with Tom Cruise and Thandi Newton macking in front of the Harbour Bridge. It was the year 2000, the Sydney Olympics were just around the corner. Business was good in Australia, which is why IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) had to head down here to track rogue agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott). Ambrose had taken off with a new supervirus, Chimera, and its antidote, Bellerophon, which he got a hold of after disguising himself as Ethan to trick his old bio-chemist friend Dr. Vladimir Nekhorvich before promptly killing him. Due to the mission’s extremely personal nature, IMF (the Impossible Missions Force, keep up) track down Ethan (hereafter referred to as Tom) on his rock climbing holiday in Dead Horse Point, Utah, shoot a pair of wraparound Oakley shades loaded with his mission (which he chooses to accept) out of a helicopter with some sort of rocket launcher, and send him packing to the Great Southern Land.
Outside of cable drops and mask-based subterfuge, one of the most notable aspects of the Mission: Impossible franchise is its almost auteurist approach to the action film. Woo was preceded by Brian De Palma and followed by JJ Abrams and Brad Bird, while M:I-2 itself was almost directed by Oliver Stone. Mission: Impossible II is the most extreme version of this approach to franchise filmmaking, with more doves, explosions, and slow-motion, acrobatic double-pistol shoot outs than the studios have seen since. It’s rumoured that Woo’s first cut was three-and-a-half hours long; it was quickly edited down to 120 minutes, plot consistency be damned.
Much like most of Woo’s films, M:I-2 is almost painfully paced. It’s got a great intro, with Ambrose and his merry men skydiving from an exploding plane after a classic Mission: Impossible/Scooby Doo mask trick, and Tom’s got one of the all time great introductions, with some breathtaking stunt work across the canyons of Utah, but once Tom’s sent to Spain to recruit master thief Nyah (Newton) it gets borderline unwatchable. Much of the romantic subplot is crammed in here (Nyah is Sean’s ex, so of course her and Tom have to hook up), and outside of a car chase that ends with the two “dancing” their speeding sports cars off a cliff it’s pretty forgettable.
Even when we finally do get to Australia it’s more of the same, until Tom and his crew have to infiltrate yet another impenetrable facility, with Woo trying (and failing) to outdo the original’s cable drop scene by recreating it in the most Woo fashion possible — with Tom dropping from a helicopter hovering above the ventilation shaft of a skyscraper and plummeting to the ground floor. It’s goofy, but it’s excellent, and once Tom’s inside things only get crazier. There’s a race against the clock to get a hold of the virus and the antidote, a shootout in the lab in which Nyah injects herself with the virus, and it ends with Tom jumping out of a skyscraper window.
Thankfully there’s not much of a wait between the skyscraper jump and the final act, much of which is spent with Tom racing around on the back of a motorbike, decked out in his best leather jacket and Oakley shades as his hair blows in the wind. There’s some stealth work in a bunker where Ambrose is extorting a heap of money for his virus, but once Tom crashes the party it’s back on the bikes for a chase that leads to the film’s climactic scene. Tom and Ambrose face off on their bikes in a game of chicken, both popping up on the back wheel before launching off their bikes and tackling each other in mid-air off yet another cliff. They then go toe-to-toe for a while as waves crash around them, before Tom finally kicks a pistol out of the sand and shoots Ambrose in one fluid motion.
Full disclosure: I had this movie on VHS as a kid. I got it from an ex-rental sale at our video shop, and I watched it more than any movie other than Spider-Man (Austin Powers: Goldmember was a close third). This movie is important to me. There’s bad stuff here, with multiple plot holes and some poor editing eclipsed by an infamous soundtrack which boasts a Limp Bizkit theme song and the Metallica track that brought down napster, but after all is said and done, there’s really nothing like M:I-2. It’s not “so bad it’s good”, it’s genuinely good. Advance Australia Fair.