Revisiting the Reviled — The Long-Lasting Ripple Effect of ‘Mission: Impossible II’

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

Nearly 20 years after Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, the franchise is still going strong with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation set to open this week. However, a fifth installment in the series didn’t always seem like it was guaranteed to happen. Much like 2 Fast 2 Furious, Mission: Impossible II almost derailed the decade-spanning franchise before it could become the reliable box office draw it is seen as today. Directed by legendary action filmmaker John Woo, M:I-2 is a cluttered mess of unfettered ambition, an attempt to steer the burgeoning series into an entirely different direction. Despite the fact that M:I-2 is the highest grossing entry in the series at the domestic box office, it is generally held in low esteem. But even through its many faults, it still carries with it a distinction that separates the Mission: Impossible series from countless other franchises – each film distinctly feel like the work of their respective directors.

Sadly, the filmmaking career of John Woo has to be divided into two categories – Hong Kong and America. In Hong Kong, in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, John Woo had flipped the world of action filmmaking on its head with raucous fun like The Killer and Hard Boiled, the latter being among the 10 greatest action films ever made, if not higher. That success eventually brought his style of filmmaking to America. After a couple of middling efforts (Hard Target, Broken Arrow), Woo finally had a hit with Face/Off, an absurd masterpiece of over the top acting and action. When it came time for his biggest film to date, Woo made a film that seemed to make the least of his talents, saving all the action for the final act. A vast majority of M:I-2 is focused on an overly convoluted story, which is a half-baked remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. Attempting to remake one of Hitchcock’s finest work is just one aspect that speaks to the largely misguided ambition behind the film – but, hey, it’s a step above Barb Wire, which attempted to remake Casablanca with Pamela Anderson in the Humphrey Bogart role.

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The story, as written by Robert Towne based on a story by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, has Tom Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt on the trail of Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), a former IMF agent who has acquired a genetically modified super virus known as Chimera. In order to find Ambrose and stop his nefarious plans, Ethan must enlist the help of Nyah (Thandie Newton), a cat burglar and former lover of Ambrose. While recruiting her, Ethan winds up going to bed with Nyah, complicating an otherwise possible mission. With Nyah now with Ambrose, Ethan must recruit his team – Luther (Ving Rhames) and Billy (John Polson). They must figure out Ambrose’s plan through intercepting the CEO of a prominent pharmaceutical company, John C. McCloy (Brendan Gleeson), who is close to striking a deadly deal with Ambrose. Meanwhile, Nyah must try not to be discovered by Ambrose, or his chief henchman Hugh (Richard Roxburgh). This all culminates in a ridiculous action scene with helicopters, motorcycles, and cars exchanging bullets.

Rumor has it that John Woo’s original cut of M:I-2 ran at about three and a half hours. If that’s true, it would explain a lot as to why M:I-2 just doesn’t work. First of all, the relationship between Ethan and Nyah is so rushed that it’s not entirely convincing that either actually feels for the other. Considering that the occupations of cat burglar and superspy aren’t associated with helpless romantics, it’d have been nice if they’d shown us instead of telling us. Since their relationship is the crux of the film’s suspense, it undermines everything that follows.

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Like the romance at play, M:I-2 isn’t adept at creating suspense through its story, which is unnecessarily convoluted. The previous film introduced the film’s MacGuffin (the NOC list) before escalating the stakes. It’s a film that is able to establish and subsequently raise the stakes while retaining a central mystery – top notch storytelling, really. Even though Robert Towne is the author behind both films, it doesn’t quite work the same the second time around. M:I-2 introduces its MacGuffin early, but the effects of the virus and the means for which it’ll be used are clumsily handled as the film progress. Without a clear set of stakes for our characters to deal with, the events that follow lack tension. Everything is made for the worse when the lifelike masks that were used in the first film, maybe two or three times, are employed so casually that there’s probably more face-peeling mask reveals than bullets fired in the first 90 minutes. It’s a kind of lazy cheat that’s way overused.

All the failings of the romance and intrigue would be quickly forgiven if the film’s action-packed climax would stand alongside some of Woo’s most impressive displays of violence. While he certainly tries to do something bigger than ever, the chaotic action of the conclusion doesn’t resemble any of Woo’s finest ballet of bullets – but, hey, he does make sure toss some doves into the fray. Yes, there’s some fantastic motorcycle stunt work, but there’s a lacking grace to mayhem. With all the resources at his disposal, Woo was unable to replicate the visceral thrills that brought him to Hollywood. More than anything, M:I-2 would be the definitive proof that the style pioneered by John Woo could not be reproduced under Hollywood conditions.

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The actual continuing legacy of Mission: Impossible II is that of a ripple effect that affected a number of productions, some of the biggest franchises of the 2000’s. M:I-2 had already been delayed as Tom Cruise was held up on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, a production that would last for over a year and a half. The role of the IMF leader, which was eventually taken by Anthony Hopkins, was originally offered to Ian McKellen, who turned it down over script concerns. The very next week, however, McKellen was offered and accepted the role of Magneto in Bryan Singer’s X-Men and subsequently Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Meanwhile, Dougray Scott was the initial casting choice for Wolverine in Singer’s X-Men, but when production went long on M:I-2, the actor was replaced by Hugh Jackman. While Scott has continued working steadily, he must have a bit of “what if” swirling around his head as Jackman is now an A-List actor, using adamantium to claw his way to the top. It’s weird to think that Kubrick’s obsessive style of filmmaking would significantly alter the careers of two actors that never appeared in any of his movies.

Mission: Impossible II would be the biggest box office success of John Woo’s career. But following 2003’s Paycheck, Woo would return to Hong Kong, where he’s made movies ever since. It would be six years before J.J. Abrams rejuvenated the series with Mission: Impossible III. As I said earlier, M:I-2 fits within the auteurist sensibilities of John Woo’s brief tenure in Hollywood. It’s an overstuffed mess a movie with fleeting moments of badassery. Of all the impossible missions out there, none seems more tragically out of reach than Hollywood success for John Woo.

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