Wednesday, May 24, 2000


'Mission 2' more accomplished

        Speaking as a believer that action movies should be smart as well as exciting, I have this to say about Mission: Impossible 2:

        God bless John Woo.

        The director of Face/Off, Broken Arrow and the Hong Kong classic Hard Boiled has pulled off a rare coup: a sequel that is decidedly better than its blockbusting predecessor.

        Brian DePalma's 1996 stunt-fest, though entertaining, was drunk on its own firepower and so densely plotted that half the audience walked away unsure of who had done what to whom.

        Not so this time, thanks to a shapely script from the terrific Robert Towne, plus Mr. Woo's uncanny ability to make a lowly fistfight look as elegant as a ballet.

        The story pits Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the Impossible Mission Force, now headed by Anthony Hopkins, off to save the world from a hideous man-made virus. At the center of this corporate blackmail scheme is Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), an IMF man gone bad. Jewel thief Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton) is recruited to help and ends up caught in a dangerous bind.

        The new movie saves all the best bits from the first film: Tom Cruise in black leather, Ving Rhames on computers, a zillion bucks for special effects, and that groovy, groovy theme music.

        Of course, this being a John Woo movie, it also features heart-stopping stunts and action sequences of unbelievable daring and complexity.

        But the real secret to the director's magic touch is not his sensational technical prowess so much as his emotional intelligence. His high-gloss, hard-bitten characters are capable of showing fear and anguish and yearning and guilt, as well as too-cool attitude.

        For example: After Ethan and Nyah meet in a Spanish bathtub during an attempted jewel heist, they take off on a hair-raising car chase that nearly ends in disaster.

        At the moment their cars spin toward apparent oblivion, they exchange a look of pure sorrow and despair, just like people who really believe they're about to die.

        That look makes what happens afterward resonate with honest feeling; nothing can fan a flirtation into passion like a near-death experience.

        Mr. Woo also knows when to back off. He knows when to turn down the volume and hold back on bloodshed, the better to emphasize truly explosive moments. His restraint extends to Hans Zimmers' score, a well considered balance of rock 'n' roll bombast and delicate melancholy.

        Production designer Thomas E. Sanders and cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball also deserve kudos for a movie that is not only handsome, bold and brash, but also visually coherent.

        The director's hand is evident in all aspects of Mission: Impossible 2 — even its excesses. For instance, he overuses his mastery of slow-motion to make the star's carefully choreographed martial-arts moves look smooth.

        Such weaknesses are minor in comparison to the movie's achievements. What we have here is what action fans long to see: a brawny, vibrant, satisfying slice of hot summer fun.


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