Well, it looked good on paper--difficult, but not impossible. To protect his newly hatched franchise, producer/star Tom Cruise hired John Woo to direct the sequel to 1996's Mission: Impossible, which added a cool $70 million to Cruise's personal bank account. A revered master of the bullet ballet, Woo would seem the ideal choice to replace Brian De Palma, who turned in an ultra-sleek piece of whizbang that had everything but the thing everybody says you gotta have: heart. Unlike De Palma, Woo is known for wearing his heart on his sleeve, and Face/Off seemed to suggest that, after a couple of misfires in his attempt to conquer Hollywood, Woo had figured out how to work within the system. But how do you top a movie that spent its entire time trying to top itself? How do you keep from self-destructing in five seconds? The good news is that Mission: Impossible 2 (or M:I-2, which sounds like something that belongs on a filing-cabinet drawer) doesn't self-destruct until its second hour. Before that, it both holds a steady course and veers off course in ways that genuinely surprise--even thrill--us. When Cruise is working his way up and down the side of a cliff, like Spiderman, it's all we ask of a summer movie: something we haven't seen done quite this well before (even in Cliffhanger). Scene by scene, Woo's the most exciting director around, but he doesn't have De Palma's ability to tease out an action sequence, light a fuse that slowly but surely snakes its way to a climax. Nor is he the techno-geek that De Palma is, and techno-geekiness is surely a virtue in this context. If nothing else, M:I-1 was a triumph of execution and planning. Defying death several thousand feet above sea level is what Cruise's Ethan Hunt does on vacation. Like James Bond, he's a thrill-seeker and a skirt-chaser. With his hair grown out, the stubbly beginnings of a beard and a more relaxed form of cockiness than he showed the first time, Cruise could be Pierce Brosnan's kid brother, but suaveness has never been this Top Gun's strong suit. The script assigns him a love interest: a jewel thief played by Thandie Newton, who has a sad beauty that almost grounds the movie in real emotion. The scene where Cruise and Newton meet, amid a flurry of flamenco dancers in Seville, is brilliantly staged--a classic case of pitching Woo--but the movie doesn't develop the romance so much as ask us to take it on faith. Like M:I-1, it has more important things on its mind: spy-vs.-spy cloak-and-daggery. Robert Towne's script is certainly easier to follow than that glorified operating manual that M:I-1 was based on, but am I the only one who thinks the script doesn't have to make sense in a movie like this? We don't want to know why, we want to know how. M:I-2, which still isn't that easy to follow, has something to do with an Ebola-like virus called Chimera. The bad guy--who, turning a century of movie tradition on its head, is the least interesting character--wants possession of the virus and the anti-virus so that he can hold the world, or at least Australia, hostage. And because Newton's Nyah was once his main squeeze, she gets recruited to find out how he expects to pull it off. This might have been another routinely impossible mission for Hunt and his team if Hunt himself hadn't come down with a virus; call it the Love Bug.
I've said this before, but, with all due respect to James Brown, Cruise is the hardest-working man in show business, and he puts himself through quite an obstacle course in M:I-2: car chases, motorcycle chases, hand-to-hand combat and enough explosions to set the Unabomber's teeth on edge. (If only he didn't seem like he was doing emotional jumping jacks in his love scenes.) M:I-1 was rather explosive too, of course, but De Palma was less interested in huge fireballs than in the mechanisms that triggered them. Paradoxically, it's M:I-2 that seems less personal, if only because Woo's heart doesn't seem to be in the movie. Face/Off had all of Woo's celebrated themes--especially, the weird way a hero and a villain call each other into existence. M:I-2 barely has a villain, and its hero is little more than heroic.