Tom Cruise, action-ace director John Woo, a title so pre-sold it's being marketed as its own abbreviation, plus all the slo-mo stunts $150 million or so can buy -- with key elements like those, "Mission: Impossible 2" looks licensed to take the world's money and run. Yet good looks can deceive.

Tom Cruise, action-ace director John Woo, a title so pre-sold it’s being marketed as its own abbreviation, plus all the slo-mo stunts $150 million or so can buy — with key elements like those, “Mission: Impossible 2″ looks licensed to take the world’s money and run. Yet good looks can deceive. Even more empty a luxury vehicle than its predecessor, “M:I 2″ pushes the envelope in terms of just how much flashy packaging an audience will buy when there’s absolutely nada inside. No doubt about it, opening-week numbers will be astronomical in all territories. But the failure to imbue this franchise with any character, ingenuity or humor may leave season’s B.O. door wide open to later, seemingly less sure-shot testosterone epics rather sooner than expected.

The original TV series (which ran on CBS 1966-73, then was updated for two so-so ABC years ’88-90, both times toplining Peter Graves) was itself a somewhat soulless machine, its poker-faced secret agents less important than each episode’s gimmicky spy tactics and disguises.

Cruise aptly realized that fidelity to broadcast details hardly mattered in this case — all anyone remembers about yesteryear’s “Mission: Impossible” is that it involved Tricky Espionage, and with his name attached, auds would know they’d get Very Big Tricky Espionage. It’s a brilliantly simple combo as far as Pavlovian demographic targeting goes.

Yet with this heavenly pitch-factor and no limits to creative leeway within it, two vast entertainments have emerged so perfectly generic they might have been assembled by robots working from a spreadsheet of all cumulative Hollywood testing polls. The huge success of the first pic surprised many in 1996: None doubted the immediate appeal, yet who would have guessed such box office for a movie whose utterly convoluted plot flummoxed patrons worldwide?

By contrast, “M:I 2″ is very cogent — perhaps too much so. Screenplay credited solely to Robert Towne (although many more are known to have toiled on it) is a straight arrow whose trajectory could have used a little curvature, among other things. As if to compensate, Woo lays on his own particular high-octane stylishness so thick the results edge perilously toward self-parody.

Fittingly, Cruise’s special agent Ethan Hunt is first glimpsed hanging on a ledge over a vast precipice, tetherless rock-climbing (on a spectacular Utah mesa) being his idea of vacation fun. How annoying, then, that “the office” interrupts such near-fatal sportsmanship with a helicopter-dropped missive: Hunt’s new task is to retrieve the “monster virus” stolen from Russian molecular biologist Dr. Nekhorvich (Rade Sherbedgia) during a Sydney-to-Atlanta commercial flight that crashed, seemingly taking doc and all other passengers down for keeps.

Further briefing comes from (an unbilled) Anthony Hopkins as a boss figure seen in just two sequences. Seems the likely culprits are general-purpose criminal mastermind Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) and evil pharmaceutical tycoon McCloy (Brendan Gleeson). To thwart them, Hunt hooks up with two fellow good-guy teammates, brow-sweating “computer genius” Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, sole subsidiary holdover from first pic) and perfunctorily “matey” Australian wise-guy Billy Baird (John Polson).

He’s also ordered to sign on glam international thief Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton), who, as the very possessive Ambrose’s runaway ex-girlfriend, can access his inner sanctum.

Ethan tracks Nyah down at an upscale fete in Seville, Spain; they make smoldering goo-goo eyes at each other between flares of a flamenco dancer’s red dress. Yet more silly coitus-not-yetus occurs vehicularly, when their sports cars wheel-lock in spinning yin-yang embrace during an overblown mountain road chase. Subsequent actual sacktime, however, banishes her reluctance in a post-shag haze of mutual, stuporous amore.

Love means never having to say you won’t immediately boff the ex-boyfriend, however, at least when biochemical terrorism’s a threat. So Nyah delivers herself back to Sean, who’s considerably less suspicious of her prodigal return than his jealous blond henchman, Hugh (Richard Roxburgh).

Various infiltrations, faceoffs and opportunities for exploding things ensue, as Ethan steals back the deadly “Chimera” virus, but only momentarily. Stuck between two boyfriends and their cocked weapons (where are those “Airplane!” satirists when you need them?), Nyah chooses … noble self-sacrifice.

There is a “monster” antidote, but time is running out. After much over-the-top helicopter/

motorcycle/auto stunt absurdity, some incongruous Tom Cruise-is-Bruce Lee chopsocky, and the villain’s de rigeur “Not quite dead yet … no, not just yet … yup, he’s alive again” final throes, global and romantic wellness are restored.

To call this chapter “Mission: Implausible” would be a heinous understatement. The big action set-pieces (invariably in slo-mo, amid picturesque showers of sparks, glass, flames and dust) are so outrageously overcooked they induced preview-aud laughter, as did, in a different vein, the whole heroine-as-doe-eyed-sacrificial-lamb development. Undeniably accomplished in technical terms, “M:I 2″ glaringly underlines the gap between Woo’s Hong Kong-bred take on heroic action and Hollywood’s. For all their hyperbole, Woo’s “Hard Target,” “Broken Arrow” and “Face/Off” each acknowledged with a wink that the excesses were meant as pure popcorn fun. This latest effort, however, takes itself terribly seriously, lending a reckless number of images that duel-of-the-gods, mythic portent that Woo’s H.K. scripts (“The Killer,” “Bullet in the Head”) better justified.

There’s no such depth here, and so much pretending-otherwise grows deeply silly fast. Everything seems solemnly cardboard, without distinguishing human detail: Scott’s handsome baddie is just a walking snarl in nice clothes; the oft-sensational Newton (“Beloved,” “Besieged”) is reduced to sultry pouts; Rhames struggles to interface intensely with computer screens and audio remotes; the plague-germ-in-the-hands-of-terrorists conceit sports no fresh wrinkles to alleviate its rote familiarity. Plot “twists” consist of little more than characters peeling off latex masks over and over: Surprise! It’s really (blank)! And you thought (blank) was dead!

As disappointing as the script’s lack of cleverness and the direction’s bombast-overkill is this sequel’s continued inability to give Cruise a real character. Ethan Hunt is just a by-numbers invincible superspy, forever eluding point-blank bullet hails, walking unscathed from kabooms that hurl extras into space, or deploying the perfect gadget at just the right unforeseeable moment. Does he have a past? Any opinions? Idiosyncrasies? Of course, he does have Tom Cruise’s smashing good looks and pearly self-confidence. But even his stellar charisma doesn’t render his sexual chemistry with Newton more credible than his dangling off a cliff (he seemed more juiced by Vanessa Redgrave’s flirtatious nemesis in first pic)

Sum effect is extravagant eye candy that, if not dull, never builds the emotional engagement or genuine suspense a good rollercoaster ride requires. All highlights, no glue, it’s like a two-hour trailer for itself. Widescreen lensing by Jeffrey Kimball (on primarily Australian locations) is duly handsome, if overinclined toward hair-blown, slo-mo iconolatry so poised it evokes top-of-the-line TV adverts. Other design elements are likewise glossy to a fault. Apart from welcome variations on Lalo Schifrin’s cool original series theme, Hans Zimmer’s score too often amplifies Woo’s penchant for kitschy hyperbole; that Spanish-guitar love theme is pure hokum.

Though unlikely under any circumstances to suffer quite the same crash-and-burn B.O. fate, “M:I 2″ should thank its lucky stars for “Battlefield Earth”: Latter’s armlock on the worst blockbuster of ’00 prize will deflect much potential ill will. The mainstream audience’s capacity for collective ridicule can presumably anoint only one “Showgirls” per season.

Mission: Impossible 2

Production

A Paramount Pictures release of a Cruise/Wagner production. Produced by Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner. Executive producers, Terence Chang, Paul Hitchcock. Directed by John Woo. Screenplay, Robert Towne, story by Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller.[###]

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Jeffrey L. Kimball; editors, Christian Wagner, Steven Kemper; music, Hans Zimmer; original theme, Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Tom Sanders; supervising art director, Dan Dorrance; art directors, Nathan Crowley, Michelle McGahey (Australia), Kevin Kavanaugh (U.S.); set designer, Thomas F. Betts (U.S.); set decorators, Kerrie Brown (Australia), Lauri Gaffin (U.S.); costume designer, Lizzy Gardiner; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Paul Brincat (Australia), Arthur Rochester (U.S.); supervising sound editor, Mark P. Stoeckinger; visual effects supervisor, Richard Yurcich; visual effects, Cinesite; special makeup effects, Kevin Yagher; associate producer, Michael Doven; assistant director, Arthur Anderson; second unit director, Billy Burton; second unit camera, Gary Capo; stunt coordinator, Brian Smrz; casting, Deborah Aquila, Greg Apps, Sarah Halley Finn. Reviewed at AMC Kabuki 8, San Francisco, May 22, 2000. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 123 MIN.

With

Ethan Hunt - Tom Cruise
Sean Ambrose - Dougray Scott
Nyah Hall - Thandie Newton
Luther Stickell - Ving Rhames
Hugh Stamp - Richard Roxburgh
Billy Baird - John Polson
McCloy - Brendan Gleeson
Dr. Nekhorvich - Rade Sherbedgia
Boss - Anthony Hopkins

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