The rap on the first Mission: Impossible movie was that nobody could understand the plot. Still, the picture was a worldwide blockbuster, so the problems of lucidity couldn’t have been that troubling, right? At least that’s the attitude seemingly copped by the makers of Mission: Impossible II, which free-falls into another scarcely comprehensible storyline right from the start.
In its bare bones, the plot shouldn’t be as murky as the first film. A scientist (Rade Sherbedgia) has developed both a deadly virus and its antidote. One or both of these falls into the hands of the bad guy, who happens to be a former IM agent (Dougray Scott). Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) must get the liquids, destroy the virus, and save the world, or at least the population of Australia, where much of the movie is set.
That all seems clear enough, yet the movie doesn’t establish that satisfyingly simple “get the McGuffin” through-line that would allow us to sit back and enjoy the big splashy action sequences, which are the point of this kind of thing. Grafted onto the spy-jinks, without satisfactory payoff, is the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious: Ethan, under orders from the IM Mr. Big (Anthony Hopkins), enlists the villain’s ex-girlfriend (Thandie Newton) for the mission. First Hunt falls in love with her—in a daffy but highly enjoyable scene that may be the world’s first courtship by car chase—and then must send her back into the bed of the villain.
If the Notorious idea were developed, or if Cruise and Newton (who knows the impact of a come-hither look) had chemistry together, perhaps this might have given us that through-line. Instead, the movie lunges from set-piece to set-piece, most of which are very engagingly staged: Cruise’s alarming rock-climbing scene, a bungee-jump into a skyscraper’s air duct, and a finale staged on motorcycles. Director John Woo squeezes juice out of these scenes, happily tapping into that talent for absurd coincidence and operatic athleticism that sparked his Hong Kong triumphs. When Tom Cruise and Dougray Scott aim their motorcycles at each other in a mechanized version of a jousting match, it is movie madness of a grand order.
The problem is that the motion picture around these individual stunts is patently a committee-made artifact. It doesn’t speak well to Cruise’s ambitions as a producer-star in the Warren Beatty vein: Mission: Impossible II lacks a vision of how the whole enchilada is supposed to blend together. Neither credited screenwriter Robert Towne nor Cruise seems to realize that capping a scene by having a spy yank off a lifelike face-mask is effective once, maybe twice, in a single film, but gets damned redundant when it happens every half-hour. The desperation of just getting the story straight becomes obvious in scenes where a couple of characters will simply stand there and tell us what’s going to happen next, and why.
Even Cruise’s character is puzzling; I couldn’t figure out why he was smiling so much. There isn’t much of the ensemble fun that the original TV series offered, with Ving Rhames (returning from the first movie) and John Polson relegated to sideline duty. Meanwhile, a great actor like Brendan Gleeson is wasted—although his sideplot, in which it is revealed that the story isn’t really about destroying mankind but about getting good stock options, is amusing. Richard Roxburgh, channeling Martin Landau from North by Northwest, is far more threatening as a henchman than nominal villain Scott manages to be.
There are graceful Woo touches even outside the action scenes, like the swaying of sheep as a helicopter buzzes their pen in the Outback. But it’s not enough to get over the blandness. Cruise may believe that producing a movie is much like leading the Impossible Mission force: gathering high-priced specialists to work on their own business, carefully assembling and executing a plan. But there’s a lot to be said for a movie being the expression of a single determined, forceful, crazy personality, an idea which this film inadvertently proves.